Thursday, 1 November 2018

Er... Did I Just Become a Neo-Nazi?


I didn’t, by the way.

Apologies for the title, but it was the only way I could really convey how much the slur stung. I mean, I’m far from perfect. But fascist? 

I should make it clear that I always like to receive feedback. Anybody who actually knows me is probably aware that a scruffy, guitar-playing, tightrope walking, Labour-voting, degenerate libertine like myself would probably choose not to live under a fascist dictatorship. This isn’t just because I disagree with them. It’s also because I’d be shot.

Yet according to a few comments over the years, Dale ‘goes to rallies of the far-right’ and ‘wants to re-introduce a fascist state’. This is news to me, and not just because the views of the far right extreme are abhorrent. The only intimate dealings I’ve ever had with skinheads was fearing getting beaten up by them for the crime of being British when I lived in Poland. This has not predisposed me towards ethno-nationalists.

Whatever. I know that everyone calls everyone a Nazi on social media, and that it’s probably not all that important. But I’m a sensitive, delicate flower, and it actually kind of upset me. Why? Frankly it just seemed a little unfair. The word fascist seems an odd kind of slur to hurl at someone who’s published in umpteen leftwing newspapers and magazines, who canvassed for Jeremy Corbyn – yes, I did – and who’s chosen to spend their adult life in the some of the most multi-cultural areas of some of the world’s most multi-cultural cities. Would a ‘fascist’ choose to live in London’s Greek-Cypriot Green Lanes? Or contribute to the pro-feminist, pro-#BLM Huffington Post? Would a white supremacist take a room in the Madrid barrio of Lavapies precisely because they loved its rich mix of Arab shops and North African street markets? I don’t personally know any fascists so I can’t really find out. Perhaps I should contact those Polish skinheads and ask them.

But here’s my guess. I don’t think the ‘fascist’ slur was really anything to do with my actual views. I have a feeling I know why I was called a fascist. I think it’s because... well, how can I put it? I fail to take things very seriously.

Perhaps some context might help at this point.

Let’s rewind half a century. Britain is a drizzly, prim kind of place, racism is rife, police patrol public toilets for cottagers, plays are pre-approved by the Lord Chancellor and sex is banned except in exceptional circumstances. Anything deemed too racy, too raunchy, too radical is squashed at birth by Mary Whitehouse and an army of Sunday Times letter-writers. The conservative right don’t just think they’re on the right. They think they’re in the right.

Enter the rebellion. From New Wave cinema’s attacks on the bourgeoisie to the hippies leading the anti-Vietnam marches, from Python in the 1970s to Alt-Comedy gunning down Thatcher in the ‘80s, a cultural tsunami began to crash against the waves of the United Kingdom flattening every conservative social more beneath it. It was messy. It was loud and it was lewd. It might not have been party-political, but it was certainly political: Civil Rights, CND, student protests, Ban the Bomb, burn the bra, Greenpeace, Greenham Common...

These struggles might not have been identified with a single political party – few political parties would have wanted to be identified with them – but they were all swept up in the general fervour of what’s sometimes called the New Left. This form of leftwing sentiment was a cultural rebellion as an economic one. In fact it was closer to a moral rebellion. It was a protest against propriety. Sex, swearing, shock, lewdness and decorative atheism were all part of it. It felt infantile at times and sometimes pointless. In fact that was kind of the idea. The point was sometimes to be pointless. If there was a salient theme here, it was to desecrate the sacred and reproach the irreproachable. In other words, it was to be irreverent.

Irreverence. It sounds like such a generic staple of any comic stance. And indeed it is. As a kid I grew up on much of that ‘80s and ‘90s satire, watching the likes of Jo Brand or Ben Elton tear the Thatcherite government to shreds for its attacks on welfare and low taxation (before they got rich and famous and mysteriously learnt to see the value of low taxation themselves). Watch a show like The Young Ones or the original Spitting Image and the range of targets is breathtaking. Everyone comes under fire. Government. Citizens. Landlords. Hippies. Police. Protestors. Capitalists. Anti-capitalists. There’s something incredibly inclusive about this, at least by today’s standards; nobody was too high and mighty to be above criticism.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. After all, you only have to watch a few ’70s sitcoms to see what a racist and sexist place Britain was back then, and even just a generation ago mainstream jokes contain stuff that feels pretty unpalatable today. Most of us feel instinctively that jokes probably should, on the whole, be directed at white rich men; after all, they held most of the power for most of human history. 

The problem however is that if you create too many No-Go areas for criticism, then you effectively disenfranchise the citizenry from a fundamental human right – to criticise other citizens. If this becomes entrenched, it starts to feel stifling. I think Meghan Markle was probably spot-on about the Royal Family being racist (is anybody actually surprised?) but that doesn’t mean she and Harry should be insulated from all critique in their luxury palace in Los Angeles. I mean, Harry went from wearing swastikas at parties to lecturing the world about anti-racism. Come on. That’s at least a little bit funny.

Instead we’re encouraged to shy away from criticism. The Royals and their rich mates are off-limits; only nasty people would go there. While I understand where this reluctance comes from – there was something a bit grubby about the tabloid press’s antipathy to Meghan for example – it has the danger of polarizing the population rather than protecting the vulnerable. Are some of the richest and most powerful celebrities on earth really beyond critique? Increasingly we’re obliged to revere an ever-expanding circle of sainted millionaires even while millions go hungry or jobless; there’s only so many breathtakingly privileged, privately-educated people lecturing the world about social justice I can take.

I think the reason people call me a fascist is because it’s precisely this kind of thing that someone like me likes to take the piss out of. ‘Taking the piss’ is a very British thing, by the way: technically it translates as ‘satirize’ or ‘mock’, but it really means something much more nuanced and more down-to-earth than that. Friends take the piss. Family take the piss. There’s something strangely inclusive about it, too; one of the ways to initiate someone into a friendship group is to expose them to a little light sarcasm. 

I like this about Britain. In fact it’s one of the things I like most. One of the reasons I don’t want to live in Tehran or Beijing is because I think the ability to laugh at oneself, to be laughed at, to not take things too bloody seriously, is a really important aspect of society working. It also just makes for more likeable people. Humour is a great path to humility.

For this reason, I’ve always thought it a kind of moral duty to criticize anybody and everybody. Nobody should be immune. I’m not a comic – as many people who’ve witnessed the silence I can create at dinner-parties will attest – but I am irreverent. There’s just something so deliciously self-important about modern liberals that makes me want to tear down a few of their pedestals. That doesn’t mean punching down. It doesn’t mean reinforcing old hierarchies or protecting rich white men. But it does mean treating powerful people as legitimate targets for satire even when they don’t happen to be rich white men. 

The sad thing about all of this is that I end up criticising the left more than the right. Partly this is because the right are often just so ridiculous that they pretty much satirize themselves: I mean, Trump jokes? Talk about ducks in a barrel. People who founded a comedy career for attempting to make Donald Trump look ridiculous were always going to be outdone by Donald Trump’s attempts to make Donald Trump look ridiculous. Worse, the right also seem to thrive by being satirized. Drawing attention to Boris Johnson’s haircut is not undermining the authority of Boris Johnson. It’s what helped him get elected.

But it’s also because the left have largely taken up the mantle of moral righteousness that used to be the preserve of the right. If you wrap yourself in an unassailable force field of virtue that protects you from all criticism, what do you expect? If you come across as overwhelmingly pious, don’t you think someone might try to puncture that piety?

It genuinely bewilders me that mocking the piety of today’s liberals is now seen as a gateway to fascism. What was the ‘60s counterculture doing if not attacking the values of the comfortable establishment? Was François Truffaut a fascist too? He was an acclaimed filmmaker, true, while I’m a lonely man with a laptop who should probably get out a bit more – but so what? Even if I lack every shred of rhetorical skill, why does that make me fascist? It just makes me a bad writer. It certainly shouldn’t affect my right to write.

Being a provocateur is bound to provoke reactions. But I think that the fury of the reactions it provokes is fascinating. Part of the reason I think it does is that over the last half century left and right have, silently and invisibly, swapped places. Economically speaking they’re pretty much in the same positions they were fifty years ago: both claim to believe in social progress, only the left backs welfare and the right backs enterprise as the main driver.

But culturally and morally they’ve switched. Just think about any of the last half dozen moral scandals you can remember from the news over, say, the last month. When a gallery exhibition is banned, when a Facebook page is taken down, when a politician is sacked, chances are that it’s a part of the left – a student union, a Twitter campaign, an anti-racism group – that’s doing the banning here.  

Now of course this is a complex picture. The old conservative right still exists. The likes of Mary Whitehouse haven’t gone away, it’s just that they don’t really matter in the cultural conversation any more. Their letters go unread. Their complaints fail to go viral. How on Earth could a cultural conservative of the old kind, after all, really survive in an age of Puppetry of the Penis? Or a Turner-prize winning art piece about tampons? How could a spokesperson of the old religious right hope to make their voice heard in a world where New Atheist God-bashers get their own ineffably smug radio shows and abuse the devout on Twitter to showers of applauding retweets?

I think we’ve forgotten about the importance of irreverence. The term taken literally means the failure to revere, the refusal to take seriously what one is expected to. Without question, it lies at the heart of all satire. But it goes much deeper than that. It lies at the heart of all good journalism, all good writing, good art, good criticism – at the heart, ultimately, of public life itself: for what is citizenship if not the right to raise an eyebrow at the powers that be? Who are we if we can’t take the piss out of one another?

If we’re allowed to cast a ballot now and again for the party we want to see in charge, we should also be allowed the space to puncture the self-importance of the powerful – in other words, to have our carnivals, have our jokes, have our memes. These are safety valves. The right to laugh, in other words, is seriously important. Comedy is no laughing matter.

That’s why the fascist slur rankles so much. It suggests that I have no respect for democracy or civil society. In fact I’d argue the very opposite. What on Earth is the connection between being a bit irreverent on Facebook and donning the swastika? The Nazis were not famous for their playful capacity for irony. Light satire did not surge at the time of Stalin’s purges or Mao’s mass-exterminations. These things are not a gateway to fascism; they’re a bulwark against it.

Until recently being a bit centrist and a bit sardonic was not perceived as problematic. Saloon wits were seen as apolitical, blow-in-the-wind; they weren’t necessarily required to have a position. Their agents didn’t call them if they didn’t put the right picture in their Twitter bio. Now anybody who dares to challenge the establishment consensus, with its limited list of permitted targets, will learn to regret it. Mock Boris Johnson’s hair, but don’t mock Boris Johnson’s lockdown. Mock Trump’s aggressive nationalism, but don’t dwell on the horrific persecution of ethnic minorities in China, Myanmar or the other hundreds of places it’s happening around the world (sometimes, rather inconveniently, at the hands of other ethnic minorities). As for mocking faith... Remember what happened to those cartoonists.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter all that much if someone calls someone like me a fascist on Facebook. It might hurt my feelings, but I’m not going to starve to death. I do, however, think that the deeper culture of piety that leads to these slurs has consequences. If the left presents itself as a moral project rather than a political one – if the main feature of being on the left is simply that you’re basically a nice person and you watch what you say all the time – then we can look forward to a lifetime of Tory governments. The Tories can move leftwards on social welfare and state spending. Where does that leave the opposition? With more policing of free speech, right thinking? More calls for harder lockdowns? Should we vote for Labour so that it’s easier for us to get banned from Facebook?

By far my keenest critic has been a man called Peter, a charming and thoughtful man fond of hurling abuse at people in the name of tolerance, and who genuinely seems to believe that the fact I find Owen Jones a bit sanctimonious means I want to build gas chambers for Jews (point of fact: I’m a smidgeon Jewish myself. Now remind me again: which UK political party was investigated for anti-Semitism recently?)

Few people call others fascists for the crime of disagreeing with them as often as Peter. I could get angry. But let’s consider the point of this article: haven’t I been arguing for tolerance, for levity, for a sense of humour? Am I in danger of condemning Peter for the condemning me? 

Although I don’t know him personally, my instinct is that Peter’s not such a bad sort really. I can’t help picturing him as the sort of guy who still sleeps with a pile of his childhood teddies, perhaps, only pausing occasionally to pick up his phone and tweet to someone that they’re a #FuckingNazi#CuntWhoNEEDSTO!DIE before settling happily back to sleep.

In fact – and I should make it clear for legal reasons I’m just speculating here – there’s something so insistent about Peter’s accusations that I can only take them as a back-handed compliment. Or perhaps more. It wouldn’t be the first time unconventional men have been sexually attracted to me, and expressed that attraction in bizarrely-passive aggressive (or even just aggressive) ways. If that is the case, Peter, then I’m touched – but sadly I have to decline. You’re just not my type.

Ultimately Peter is just one person – but he represents many more: people who think that screaming at someone for not agreeing with you is a fun way to start the day, people who believe that the best way to create a more tolerant, caring society is to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being Adolf Hitler. Ironically, the thing all of this really reminds me of is the atmosphere of 1930s Germany. So if Peter’s right, and I am a fascist, then he is too. Eh Peter: let’s kiss and make up. Or don’t Nazis do that?