Samuel Johnson, also known as ‘Maggoty Johnson’ has an inscription on his grave which can set the picture for where we are today. The inscription was written in 1851 and begins: “If chance has brought thee here, or curious eyes / To see the spot where this poor jester lies / A thoughtless jester even in his death / Uttering his jibes beyond his latest breath.” In other words, by the time the Victorian era cemented itself in Britain, those who spent their keep acting the fool were not viewed upon favourably.
However, the view of jesters merely seeking to please the King or Queen, and being of little importance in the Court of Royalty, falls short when one encounters Stańczyk, Jester to the last three Jagiellons – Aleksander, Sigismund Old, and Sigismund Augustus. It is the art work by Jan Matejko, showing him to be troubled at the royal ball upon hearing the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk which shows his importance. Stańczyk is known as a highly intelligent political philosopher who often spoke truth to power. Furthermore, in Polish literature he is perceived as the symbolic conscience of the nation. The work’s beauty is that it shows a person’s being, that of a jester’s, in a manner unsuited to the idea we hold in our minds when one thinks about a jester.
With that in mind how does one reflect on the case of Markus Meechan AKA Count Dankula’s joke which saw him receive an £800 fine and a conviction in a Scottish court? It was the 2003 Communications Act that went for the juggler (pardon the pun), as Count Dankula was charged said fine for being “grossly offensive”. Further criticisms against his name is that he is guilty of religious and racial aggravation. The case was brought by Ephraim Borowski whose argument was that you should never do jokes about the Holocaust. The joke was the following: he trained his pug to do a Nazi salute in response to the cue “gas the Jews.”
This joke here is that Count Dankula’s girlfriend thought their pug was the cutest thing in the world, therefore he trained the pug to do the least cute thing he could think of. The comedian David Baddiel (also Jewish) has come out, and argued “as far as I’m concerned you can definitely do jokes about the Holocaust. You can do jokes about anything.” Is Baddiel an anti-Semite in disguise? Does he not understand the offensiveness of this video? Maybe it’s the aforementioned context, in which Count Dankula said he was explicitly doing this as a jest against his girlfriend who thought their pug was cute no matter what, that leads Baddiel not to be offended. Thus, the video serves if taken literally, as a representation that the pug is not cute, because it happens to support the views of Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, that is the reductio ad absurdum you would find yourself in, if you didn’t get the context of this joke. Despite this seemingly obvious absurdum one would find themselves in, the judge in this case sided with the prosecution who said “context and intent are irrelevant.”
Count Dankula’s own words, and motivations will prove him to be right if he fails in this effort to save freedom of speech. In a video entitled ‘The Price of Freedom is £800’ published the day after his court case, he says: “I was fully prepared to go to jail yesterday, because in my head my form of protest is to refuse any form of punishment the judge gives me.” He goes on to say he is appealing his sentence (setting up a go fund me page to cover the legal costs) so the conviction is overturned to remove the standard it sets:
“…over something as simple as a joke. I can’t allow what me and my family went through happen to happen to anyone else. If my case sets the standard for this, this makes it easier for the Scottish justice service to do this to anyone.”
Jordan B. Peterson, who himself is no stranger to danger for the act of speech, having recently had a lecture protested with a student carrying a garrotte, said the following in his talk about his new book 12 Rules for Life: “when the king starts killing the jester you know are dealing with a tyrant.” The king in this instance are those who administer, and believe in such laws. Laws that have led to the following: a teenager found guilty of sending an offensive message due to posting a lyric from Snoop Dogg, a Christian preacher arrested for 19 hours for saying homosexual sex is a sin, a man given a community sentence for saying “all British soldiers should die and go to hell”, a mum was questioned for comments on transgender surgery, and a 19 year old man arrested for a tasteless joke about a lorry disaster.
You may agree with Count Dankula’s punishment, but consider that an attack on free speech affects us all. Also, in cases such as these it’s hard not to despair, but as Emiliano Zapata argued: “better that we should die on our feet rather than live on our knees.”
These are the views of the author, and do not reflect the views of The Sphinx.
Featured Image Credit: The Irish Times