Originally published June 24, 2015
In the end, the Attorney General looked into filing charges against Jan Rankowski, but never did, on the grounds that he was not mentally stable enough to prosecute.
AS I WRITE this, it is the first week of March. Kingston has yet to notice, and remains cold and snowy. And, only a couple of weeks ago, the news broke about Jan Rankowski being the true identity of Jace Connors.
(To give you an idea of just how far in advance these columns are sometimes written, this is installment #6…the queue of completed drafts right now goes up to installment #20, with another dozen topics on the “to write” list.)
For those who missed it (or have forgotten), Jace Connors was a strange, maniacal figure on YouTube and Twitter who had begun to harass Brianna Wu, adding his own bizarre brand of death threat to the many she had already received. As a result, her development team was pushed over the edge, and pulled out of PAX East, although Wu herself put in an appearance. Then, the news broke that Jace Connors was actually a character created and played by Jan Rankowski, part of Million Dollar Extreme, a comedy group out of Rhode Island.
Rankowski had been attempting to satirize GamerGaters, he told Buzzfeed, until some of them had discovered that Jace Connors was an act and turned on him. He came forward when he had begun to receive the very same treatment he had been satirizing, although some in the media questioned just how much of it was an act.
I do not doubt Rankowski’s word for an instant. The reason is simple: satire and parody are arguably the most powerful — and dangerous — forms of comedy out there. Done properly and in the right hands, they can bring down the powerful and discredit ideas. But when they backfire, things can get bad very quickly.
I saw the power of satire during the Canadian Federal election of 2000. The right-wing candidate for Prime Minister, Stockwell Day (who, to be fair, had his share of strange quirks), had in his platform a measure to make the Federal government more responsible: if 3% of Canadian voters (350,000 people) signed a petition, the government would hold a referendum on the subject.
Rick Mercer, a comedian on a news parody show titled This Hour Has 22 Minutes, announced a petition of his own: that Stockwell Day would have to change his name to “Doris.” Within a short period of time, the petition had enough signatures and then some — the number of signatures reached 1.2 million — to go to referendum should Day be elected. It also reduced Day to a laughing stock across the country, and helped put an end to any leadership ambitions he ever had.
Likewise, Charlie Chaplin took on Nazi Germany in The Great Dictator — a brutally funny (and often frighteningly brutal) send-up of fascism. It was a brave move for Chaplin, who began production in 1938 — not only did the breakout of World War II shortly before filming began likely save the film from being buried, but it also proved to be one of the most effective counters to Nazi propaganda ever produced.
These are both cases of satire working. The most famous case is arguably Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein Swift brought attention to the inhumane treatment of the Irish by suggesting that a solution to a famine was to start eating Irish babies. This form of comedy even goes back millennia — around 2000 BC, an ancient Assyrian writer sent up the deeds of King Sargon with a parody of a royal inscription that included, in a play on words that only works in Old Akkadian, Sargon’s trousers splitting while he runs, forcing him to put on a coat of mail.
But as I said, when satire doesn’t work, things can get very bad. Although the name escapes me, there is a story about a 19th century American satirist who, tired of the religious strife between Protestants and Catholics, suggested that the Protestants just finish it already and kill all the Catholics. To his shock and horror, a number of Protestant churches gave the idea their full endorsement, and the satirist found himself in jail. The term is “Poe’s Law,” coined in 2005 by Nathan Poe: any attempt to satirize a type of extremist runs the risk of being mistaken for that type of extremist.
To be clear, while I understand what Jan Rankowski was attempting to do, I do not have a single iota of sympathy for him. To carry out his satire, he used as his prop somebody already living in a state of fear, and increased that fear immeasurably. The least he could have done was contact Brianna Wu in advance and clear it with her — instead, he did not, and even used private in-character death threats to her to carry out his joke. It was unconscionable, and Rankowski deserves whatever lawsuits or criminal charges he gets.
But that doesn’t detract from the sheer power of satire, and we will not see any shortage of attempts to use it. After all, done properly it can help change the world — but it is a dangerous animal indeed, and handled incorrectly, it will bite.