On Friday, I wrote a piece about John Oliver’s two-year-old HBO show that continues the American tradition of tame, prescribed political comedy. Last Week Tonight is so predictable in its content choices and so formulaic in its delivery that it seemed like a good subject for a bit of meta-satire. Otherwise, there is nothing uniquely bad or good about it: it serves the opposite function of what we think satire is meant to serve, but so do most other shows of its kind in the US. This function is twofold: bolstering the rigid confines of acceptable public discourse (while pretending to push them), and lampooning members-in-good-standing of the political establishment, mostly to make them seem more relatable (rather than as “stinging criticism”).
Jon Stewart, the high priest of centrist faux satire and former mentor to John Oliver, was briefly back in the limelight last week when he gave an interview to fellow Democratic party insider David Axelrod. Stewart was asked about the line political satire is not allowed to cross — posed, of course, by an audience member rather than by Axelrod, and formulated in the most polite way possible: “Are there topics that are off-limits to political satire?” Judging by how defensive the retired comic’s tone became, it is obvious he understood the implications of the question.
“No topic is off-limits. Unless you’ve got one that you’d like to toss out. Because no topics are off-limits to life. And I’m still waiting for someone to ask that question to a politician, instead of a comic. ‘Cause all I ever hear is, people always say: ‘Where’s the line?’ And they always ask comedians: ‘Where’s the line?’ But very rarely do they say to presidents and senators: ‘Where’s the line? Which bomb would be the line?’ ”
You’d think that, after a career spent dodging this very question, Stewart would have a more convincing answer up his sleeve. This one is as disingenuous as it is incoherent. Unlike him, most of us don’t have the chance to ask “presidents” questions, but we’d love for someone to hold them to account. If regular media personalities are too timid for the job, should it not be the irreverent, daring political satirists? Clearly not. And whenever pressed on this point, Stewart, like those aping him, resorts to the cop-out: I’m not a pundit, I’m just a comedian. (Works slightly better than the Paulo Coelho-esque “no topic is off-limits to life”, whatever that means.)
Quite like there is a revolving door between regulatory agencies and the corporations they supposedly regulate, a lot of traffic passes through a revolving door between the American political class and the world of political comedy. High-ranking Democratic strategist David Axelrod softballing Jon Stewart, as a thank-you for a decades-long career softballing David Axelrod and his ilk, is as good an illustration as any. But there are many other uniquely American media phenomena that speak to the same coziness. Politicians appear on Saturday Night Live to make fun of themselves alongside actors who professionally impersonate them. (See, isn’t Hillary Clinton a good sport?) People excitedly tune in to watch the president deliver a stand-up routine at the White House Correspondents’ dinner, presumably full of contributions from writers “on the other side”, in the political lampooning business. And the same president gets invited to guest-host Stephen Colbert’s show, occasionally even turning it into all-out, old-timey war propaganda, with Joe Biden serving hot dogs to the troops. It is practically irrelevant to the audience whether the jokes about politicians are made by comics or by the politicians themselves.
One source of genuine satire with a large US audience has for long been The Onion, probably due in part to the way “America’s finest news source” works. As with any good publication, multiple talented (and some not so talented) people make their individual editorial contributions, absent any attempt to speak in one voice. As a result, many contrasting sentiments end up in the mix — anything from the silly to the genuinely insightful and hard-hitting. Even the Pentagon made note of this when, in 2012, President Obama launched the aptly Orwellian-sounding “Insider Threat Program”, one of his signature crackdowns on government transparency. It was implemented not just within the DoD but government-wide, requiring employees to spy on each other for “high-risk behaviors” or face possible penalties. (The program failed to prevent Edward Snowden’s leaks the following year.) One potentially suspect behavior, according to a senior Pentagon official, is reading The Onion.
Obviously, listening to John Oliver throw good-natured jabs at Michael Bloomberg or hearing Trevor Noah call Chris Christie fat won’t affect anyone’s feelings towards the government. Your agency’s local Stasi liaison won’t be interested if the guy you share a cubicle with is watching these shows; they’re probably both fans. And still, we like to cling to the idea that these comics “speak truth to power”. At their best, they can be genuinely funny and clever, but their work has as much to do with political satire as Fox News has to do with journalism.
Hate These Blurred Lines (…I Know You Want It, I Know You Want It)
Last October, a man named Bilgin Çiftçi was fired from his job in Turkey’s public health service and brought to court by the ridiculously thin-skinned wannabe-dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His crime: posting pictures online comparing Erdoğan with Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. In a bizarre turn of events, his defense decided to go with the argument that the pictures are, in fact, of Sméagol — an innocent Hobbit who only later became corrupted by the One Ring and, consequently, turned into Gollum, the mentally unstable, lizardly weirdo. Stephen Colbert, a self-professed Tolkien super-geek, jokingly volunteered to serve as an expert witness, while taking the moment to celebrate his constitutional right to make fun of whomever he wants. (This was yet another instance of current political humor being unable to come anywhere close to the mind-boggling absurdity of our political reality — an increasingly difficult task in recent times, especially with the rise of Donald Trump.)
But Colbert is right: the US has a high degree of genuine freedom of speech. Not just compared to countries like Turkey, but to Europe — which makes it all the more frustrating to see him celebrate this freedom in theory more than in practice. As but one example, Germany recently green-lighted a prosecution aimed to protect the very same Recep Gollum Erdoğan’s thin (and translucent, somewhat slimy) skin. The spectacle is beyond disgusting: with the recent refugee crisis — for which Europe should own up to its considerable share of responsibility — the EU has thrown away its professed concerns for human rights in Turkey and of those trying to escape war-torn countries. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reason for personally okaying legal action against a German satirist for a lewd poem about President Erdoğan is part of a quid pro quo. Now that European countries get to speed-deport those pesky asylum seekers to Turkey, in violation of international law, we had better be sympathetic to the poor president who’s so very precioussss about attacks on what he considers to be his character.
But Europe doesn’t merely heed the guttural noises emanating from the tormented Erdoğan-creature’s throat: we have our own culture of suppressing speech, and few moments in recent history have thrown this European hypocrisy into such sharp relief as the Charlie Hebdo tragedy last year. In the aftermath of the shooting, a cavalcade of dignitaries from some of the most oppressive regimes marched through Paris, arms interlocked, to feign concern for freedom of expression. Meanwhile, France has continued its tradition of criminally convicting people for expressing the wrong sentiments or making the wrong jokes, even for purely political calls to boycott Israel, which is increasingly interpreted as “hate speech” around Europe. (Side note: let’s all boycott Israel.)
In Europe, expressing yourself freely is OK until it’s not OK. There are no laws on the books you can consult to find out what’s kosher and what isn’t, and it varies from country to country — you just, kinda, have to know. Despite being the most discriminated minority in the west, Muslims are free game in France, while jokes about Jews can land you in jail. This probably has to do, in part, with President François Hollande’s attempts to get his country back on the whole War on Terror scene with the US, after all the awkwardness that happened with the last Bush regime. Charlie Hebdo is an all-out racist propaganda publication, but for France, it’s the right kind of racist propaganda.
Things aren’t much different in the UK. Just recently, a Scottish man was arrested for posting a video in which he teaches his girlfriend’s dog Buddha to raise his paw in a Sieg Heil salute, along with other Nazi-dog-themed idiocies, all in an effort to get a few laughs out of his mates and to piss off his girlfriend. There’s a long tradition of funny Nazis in comedy, but the 28-year-old call center worker is clearly not a member of the refined classes whose humorous intentions are evident by just looking at their faces, and the video isn’t very funny. It’s unclear if he broke any laws but, hey, that’s OK when you can use arrest as punishment before any legal proceedings. As Detective Inspector David Cockburn proudly proclaimed: “This arrest should serve as a warning to anyone posting such material online, or in any other capacity, that such views will not be tolerated.” (I propose, though, that we have the girlfriend flogged for naming her dog “Buddha”.)
In my native Finland, a different set of unwritten rules apply. Mocking Islam will easily land you in court. (What do you think this is? Fucking France?) Scandinavia is, sadly, not the enlightened utopia that Bernie Sanders supporters and other assorted American lefties imagine it to be. Finland, in particular, has a sordid history when it comes to freedom of speech. Still to this day, we have a blasphemy law on the books, which up until the late ’60s was used to send people to jail for being rude to Jesus. It was cosmetically changed in 1999 into a “law on religious peace”, but it still criminalizes “publicly mocking God or, with the intent to offend, insulting or dishonoring that which is sacred to the Church or another lawful religious community”.
Times have changed much more than the actual wording of the statute, and the law no longer means what it used to. As a Finnish citizen, I don’t have to worry about publicly calling Jesus an annoying hippy asshole. It is selectively enforced, according to the dictates of what is considered politically correct in Finland. Quite like in France, you just have to know.
Jussi Halla-aho, an MP from the populist Finns Party (formerly the “True Finns”) attempted to inspect the lines of so-called free speech in his blog. Taking a statement from a newspaper editorial about Finnish people’s “national, perhaps even genetic” propensity to commit drunken homicides, and, addressing his words to the state prosecutor, he paraphrased the sentence into an equally generalized statement about Somalis. He also threw in the usual historical charge that the Prophet Mohammad had sex with his 9-year-old wife according to Islamic texts themselves, and asked: if it’s OK to state this fact, and that Islam teaches its adherents to follow Mohammad as an example, is it permissible to conclude that 1) Mohammad was a pedophile and that 2) Islam, consequently, sanctions pedophilia?
Exploding the irony meter, the state prosecutor and the courts decided to prove all of Halla-aho’s points: by trying and convicting him. It’s clear that he was not punished for what he wrote, but because “us decent people” know what he really thinks. In its ruling, which would make Franz Kafka crap his pants, the Finnish Supreme Court even cited the defendant’s unnecessary use of bold, underlined font in the offending statements, which were ordered to be removed from the blog post. There’s a famous story about an Irish-British diplomat who, according to legend, was hanged in 1916 because of the placement of a comma in an old treason law. The Finnish legal system, which is a fucking joke when it comes to free speech, is probably the first in the world to produce a conviction based on a font.
Hate Free Speech?
Freedom of speech means nothing when states decide that some ideas are just too “obviously” vile to be permitted. As much as I resent Charlie Hebdo, and the xenophobic political movements in Finland and elsewhere, or the obscene jokes made by French Holocaust deniers, freedom of expression would mean that we counter their ideas with better ideas, and better jokes — not with selective, cynical application of misguided laws any more than through violence. There are plenty of disgusting sentiments that are routinely expressed in the media and sanctioned by governments (as I noted, differing even between European countries). For those of us who don’t have biased courts and laws on our side, speech is not just the only weapon available, it’s the best one. No doubt there are well-meaning idiots who think otherwise, including those who advocate for criminalizing climate change denial. Good luck with that.
This touches on a topic that, as a native-born European and long-time US resident with dual citizenship, I’ve been interested in and writing about for years. (You may have noticed that, somewhat confusingly even to myself, I tend to use the first person plural in reference both to “us Europeans” and “us Americans”.) Many of us Europeans consider our knowledge of, and resentment towards, the US and its policies as a sign of keen political awareness. This often goes hand in hand with total ignorance about the policies of European governments and the EU, even when they are identical, which is most of the time. When it comes to free speech, one of the things that the US truly has going for itself compared to us (Europeans) is the right to ridicule, as Stephen Colbert noted.
If only our American political comedians would cherish this privilege with a bit more gusto. But I hear that my fellow Euro-American, John Oliver, had a pretty hard-hitting piece this week about how 9-1-1 dispatch centers are in dire need of funding.