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Nazi Pugs & Racist Thugs

There’s no sense in being like a dog with a bone over free speech.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

In researching this article, I’ve journeyed in to the arse ends of the internet to find out who the hell Count Dankula is. From what I can gather, he’s a “professional shitposter”, a 21st Century vocation if ever I heard one. Scrolling a little of his Twitter feed, he doesn’t seem like a completely repugnant person, which is a pleasant surprise, but there were many items that made me nervous. What also makes me nervous is today’s browsing history showing up on a public wifi network, because dear me, it’s dire.

However, the types of rabbit holes I ventured down were more of the Reddit / 4chan variety than Stormfront or Breitbart, so again, not as bad as I suspected. Damn, I have set a low bar for this thinkpiece. My point is that at least he’s not one of the truly bad guys. But according to UK law, he has done bad — so let’s break down the what and the why.

The original event that prompted this furore was a video that he (Count Dankula / Markus Meechan) uploaded to YouTube, of his girlfriend’s pet pug performing Nazi salutes to commands, including “Seig Heil” and “gas the Jews”. He says he did it to annoy his girlfriend (who by some miracle is still with him, although I suppose there’s someone for everyone) by turning her cute little dog into a figure of evil. I do believe that he’s probably not anti-Semitic at heart, but there’s no way he couldn’t have known that this would cause controversy. Annoying his girlfriend was probably a part of the setup, but he posted it on YouTube for an audience (he claims he only had 8 followers at the time and didn’t know it would go viral — as of the time of writing he has 130,683).

That’s where my digging came in. He’s not the type of person I would follow on social media, and so all I really knew of him was the impending trial over his ridiculous video. And so I needed to know more. From what I’ve seen, his content, including the infamous video, involves him being an outrageous contrarian on camera. He also appears to reduce complex social problems to a soundbite, and refuses to see other people’s point of view — unless those views confirm his prejudices. There is, understandably given recent events, a decent amount of Free Speech Absolutism. But it’s the macho posturing and “anti-SJW” stance that gave a clue as to the nature of the problem.

Much of his social commentary seems to deliberately omit all nuance and take every argument to its logical extreme. Everything plays out as viewed through a clueless white male lens — it’s entertainment for those who deny their privilege and don’t want to check it. Many of his followers claim to be “rational” and “skeptics”, which is funny given the number of logical fallacies he commits. Apparently his material is meant to be “edgy”, and in fairness, 16- or 17-year old me would have found him hilarious. But 16- or 17-year old me was a terrible person. I grew up in a bubble, was a staunch Conservative, and I refused to accept that people’s life chances are affected by anything other than their own ability and grit.

Basically, teenage me was a dickhead, and I’m eternally thankful that YouTube had not been invented back then, because I would be so humiliated by any of my antics becoming public (I would definitely have gone online to spout my horrendous opinions). I was arrogant, opinionated, and oblivious to the sensibilities of others — a lot like how Count Dankula comes across. In the UK, we don’t have laws against being a dickhead, however much I have secretly longed for them at times. That is also an important point in this fiasco, because contrary to opinion, Dankula was not prosecuted for “being a dickhead”. He wasn’t even prosecuted for “telling a joke”, as he and his supporters claim.

The relevant piece of legislation in The Strange Case Of The Pug And The Hate Crime is Section 147 of The Communications Act 2003. It covers communications that fall into one of these four categories:

  1. Communications constituting a threat of violence to person or property.

2. Communications constituting harassment or stalking, control, coercive behaviour or blackmail (including revenge porn).

3. Contempt of Court Act, Sexual Offences Act or and Breach of restraining order or bail.

4. Grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.

It seems that the courts went after Dankula under the fourth criterion — which does pose some interesting issues. The British courts have a record of being very conservative with regard to what is considered “grossly offensive or obscene”, and there have been legitimate appeals to overturn restrictive rulings. Those cases are, arguably, at the cutting edge of protecting free speech. Some of them are silly, all of them are distasteful, but truly offensive? No — they did not meet that standard.

But Dankula’s Nazi pug video did cross the threshold from bad taste to criminal offense. It was not because he told a joke. Specifically, it was the act of posting a video deemed to contain illegal material. I think that he’s claiming the “joke” is that he trained the dog to behave badly, but he’s (deliberately) missing the point. The video repeatedly uses the phrase “gas the Jews” (23 times, I am reliably informed) and plays clips of some of Hitler’s speeches. I want to say THAT’S THE FUCKING PROBLEM, but actually that is only one part of the fucking problem.

The other crucial element is context. Now, he claims to not have intended for the video to cause offence, to which I say pull the other one. I mean, come on, the entire premise of his “joke” was to turn the dog into something that people would deem offensive. And it’s also irrelevant whether he intended to cause offence or not, because the law deals with the dissemination of material that is judged to be offensive by the court. It’s whether or not it did cause offense. Simply saying “but I didn’t mean it, your honour” doesn’t get you off the hook.

This is potentially problematic because “offensive, indecent and obscene” are concepts determined by what a “reasonable person” would think, according to the court. Obviously there is a diversity of opinion on this matter, and there is the potential for mistakes to be made. But the court decided that it did meet the standard, and if Dankula wishes to appeal it, he is within his rights to do so, as long as he can bring new evidence to demonstrate his innocence.

In addition to the content of the video itself, we need to consider how the audience would consume it. My YouTube recommendations are currently garbage thanks to my research for this article (I make these sacrifices in the name of journalism). Most of his stuff gets demonetised, but I’m amazed they don’t take down half of his stuff and the videos that get recommended alongside them. It’s all about “owning the libs” and skirting so close to the line that they’re taking the piss. I never managed a scenario in which YouTube would recommend for me Milo Yiannopoulos and Sargon of Akkad, but there you go, my video stream’s ruined for all eternity now.

The kind of people seeking out his material are looking for entertainment that confirms their already diabolical opinions. Count Dankula’s style is to mock progressive ideals and slap down anyone who is slightly different or dares to promote the rights of others. His unironic use of “SJW” as a pejorative was just one of many red flags I noticed within a single 5-minute video. It was only a matter of time before one of his videos crossed the line from “shitposting” to “hate crime” — he is not subtle in presenting terrible and harmful opinions, but I suppose at least a foghorn is easier to spot than a dog-whistle.

The fact that he’s featured alongside such luminaries as these alt-right edgelords tells us a lot about the impact of his videos. At best he is an enabler for shitty opinions to proliferate, at worst he’s courting extremists. And as it would happen, one of his supporters is Tommy Robinson (leader of the EDL), who Dankula offers a handful of retweets to, along with Alex Jones, that gammon-faced purveyor of conspiracies and bullshit nutritional supplements. Now, why would these unsavoury characters be the ones he runs to for defence? The best he’s been able to get on his side is Ricky Gervais, who has made a career out of being a tedious arsehole.

Social media is powerful — it’s the new vehicle for our news, opinions and entertainment. Dankula’s popularity draws upon this, and feeds back into it. And what he is feeding us is a load of steaming hot bullshit. It’s not to do with “telling a joke” (a shite joke at that), it’s to do with how he has spread that bullshit nice and thickly to the rest of the world. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence would have stopped, and thought “hmmm, is this really appropriate for me to be uploading onto the world wide web in my name? Is there any way that repeatedly saying ‘gas the Jews’ might be offensive to, you know, Jews (and everyone else)?”

Maybe he thought he’d get away with it, maybe he was too thick to realise that there are (well-publicised) laws about this, or maybe he thought he’d be successful in pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Well, the law was having none of his crap, and he (and any other UK citizens with similar “comedic” aspirations) has been stopped from further polluting our media with inane, tasteless, and divisive fuckwittery — of this sort, at least. The message is clear: don’t upload videos of yourself committing a hate crime. Duh.

But, as with these things, it doesn’t stop there. The law in the UK works on a system of precedent. While we have clear rules set out in any legal act, there is also a degree of interpretation, which is dealt with in cases where we come across a new sort of problem. This trial was one of those cases, and now we have precedent set for how to police these sorts of malicious communications. The problem is that his stupid prank has now placed restrictions on the very same free speech that he claimed to be defending.

Although the UK is one of the more restrictive Western countries when it comes to freedom of expression, we are generally quite privileged compared to most nations worldwide. We’re privileged enough to forget how lucky we are, and we get professional trolls saying the most offensive things they can think of to prove a point. The trouble is that because we have laws designed to protect minorities from hateful speech, if you say hateful things, you’re going to get prosecuted. And in doing so, you’ve eroded a little bit of everyone’s freedom. Count Dankula has successfully proven that we can’t be trusted with free speech; the perfect excuse for it to be further restricted.

We don’t need bellends like Count Dankula ruining it for everyone else by giving the authorities a reason to clamp down on free speech and broadcast media. The common excuse is that “I don’t like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Yet nowadays we are just abusing that notion. Free speech is about one’s right to criticise the government, openly voice one’s opinions, and to freely associate as one pleases. Free speech comes with responsibilities, and if you have the mindset of a whingeing teenager, maybe you’re not ready to play with the grown-ups in the “free marketplace of ideas”.

We have learned the hard way in Europe that if you give fascists, racists and contrarians a mouthpiece, they will use it to abuse the system and spread hatred & fear. We fought A GODDAMN WAR over this. My grandparents’ generation did not risk their lives so that edgelords could mock the very minorities that suffered at the hands of tyrants. And that is why we have laws on hate speech. Because we don’t want that shit happening again.

The point of free speech is not to advance the ideas of awful people. As a society, we decide what we’re willing to tolerate (because “tolerate” is really the best we can do with dickheads like this), and we’ve made it illegal to say things that no reasonable person would ever have a need to say. Words carry a lot of power, and they can be used for good and evil. Saying evil things for shits and giggles legitimises evil — it’s about more than your right to tell a shitty joke.

Free speech is both a right and a privilege. If you abuse it, a little more of it gets eroded away. Dankula and his “edgy” buddies are taking those rights away from us. Although if we just use free speech to act like massive pricks online, perhaps we don’t deserve it.