In 1941, a German vice consul in Nazi-friendly Finland reported a suspicious act: a dog had reportedly mocked the Führer. A Finn named Tor Borg was called in for questioning: Was it true that his dog had, upon hearing the word “Hitler,” made a mockery of the chancellor by performing a Nazi salute? After a few weeks’ consideration, the case collapsed due to lack of witnesses. “Considering that the circumstances could not be solved completely, it is not necessary to press charges,” declared a paper found in the German Foreign Office and reported on by the BBC.
Fast forward three-quarters of a century, and another European living under a freedom-hating regime is not so lucky. Count Dankula, a YouTube prankster, posted a video in which his girlfriend’s pug gives a Nazi salute, watches Hitler footage, and responds enthusiastically to the remark, “Gas the Jews.” Mr. Dankula appears to be headed for prison, having been convicted of a hate crime by a Glasgow judge. Dankula — real name Mark Meechan of Scotland — is annoying, and in Britain that’s against the law. Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003 declares it illegal intentionally to “cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another” with online posts. Meechan’s sentencing is set for April 28.
Dankula — real name Mark Meechan of Scotland — is annoying, and in Britain that’s against the law.
Given Britain’s preeminent place in the world history of humor, the following seems a bit like explaining to the Saudis that “oil can be used as fuel,” but here goes: Count Dankula was joking, via the established comedy technique of incongruousness. Pugs are nearly the sweetest and most innocent of God’s creatures; Hitler was among the most evil men who ever lived. It’s incongruous for a pug to be a Nazi, and incongruousness can be funny.
Is Nazism funny? No. But that is not the issue. Are jokes about the Nazis funny? It depends on the joke. Not that it is the business of any liberal government to parse the humor value of intended jokes. Britain is not China or Iran, and yet its shameful prosecution of Meechan illustrates how dangerous it can be to mock the speech norms of the ruling classes in even the most advanced, free-thinking, and (supposedly) tolerant and free societies. How rare and vanishing a liberty is the American notion of free speech: Agents from “more than 29 forces” arrested more than 3,300 Britons last year for Internet trolling last year, which marks a rise of almost 50 percent in two years, reports the Times of London, with about half of these arrests leading to actual prosecutions. The paper dug up the figures only via freedom-of-information act requests.
The pace of arrests is expected to increase further; Home Secretary Amber Rudd — she of the Conservative party that has been leading Britain since 2010 — last week launched a new police unit tasked with going after Internet trolls. Arresting every annoying Briton on the Internet and instilling fear of the speech police in the hearts of the rest is quite an ambition for what is supposedly the most freedom-loving of Britain’s major political parties. We shall fight them on the Twitters, we shall fight in the YouTubes and in the Facebooks, we shall never surrender to the odious apparatus of Internet comedy. . . . Meechan’s lawyer said at trial that no one had complained to the local police about the Nazi pug video; the police simply took it upon themselves to go after him.
No one had complained to the local police about the Nazi pug video; the police simply took it upon themselves to go after him.
It’s saddening that Meechan’s conviction isn’t even much of an issue in the U.K. A search of major news sites after the verdict yielded little more than shrugs about his fate. Oh, there was this column, again in the Times: “Social Media’s Wild West Needs to Be Tamed,” runs the headline of Daniel Finkelstein’s piece, which notes, “We have our foot in the door. [Web companies] can be pushed much further. They shouldn’t make money out of hateful and libelous content.” Among the few prominent figures to express revulsion at the verdict was comedian Ricky Gervais, who tweeted, “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.”
Just so. Gervais should blast out the pug video (he has 13 million Twitter followers) to illustrate the further, obvious point that beloved figures such as he stand no risk of being prosecuted for the exact same content that got Meechan convicted. When you set out to scrub the Internet of annoying people, unless you put as much effort into roundups as the Stasi, your prosecutions are bound to be selective. For Gervais to do what I suggest would illustrate the absurdity of Britain’s singling out the powerless among those who offend.
Gervais, after all, has offended many with his jokes about transsexuals, rape, and other sensitive subjects, and he deals insightfully with the backlash to some of his previous performances in his new Netflix special Humanity. Gervais says he once got into a Twitter spat with a Christian fundamentalist who predicted he’d be raped by Satan, causing Gervais to riff on the topic, which in turn led another Twitter user to complain, “You find rape funny?” No, Gervais said. “You mean jokes about rape?” he added. “Depends on the joke.” With Web giants increasingly inclined to act as de facto censors of “hate speech,” and corporations increasingly inclined to fire employees for politically incorrect remarks, Gervais and other standups are becoming the most forceful defenders of free speech. It would be a pity if Gervais let a couple of tweets about Count Dankula be his last word on the case instead of seizing the opportunity to use his huge following to push for the repeal of the detestable restrictions on speech in George Orwell’s homeland.