August 14, 2021

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“No great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm or mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes everything it touches.” So wrote the Czech writer Milan Kundera in his novel The Joke.

Humour has long been a magic ingredient in unlocking political change. In the medieval court, jesters had an almost unique privilege in being able to tell the monarch what he didn’t want to hear, and were often tasked with presenting bad news. In totalitarian regimes humour was a daily act of undermining the regime, to the extent that on Stalin’s death 200,000 of the Gulag’s 2.5m population were there for telling jokes.

In recent years, unpalatable political ideas have often been presented under the cover of humour. Nigel Farage, Britain’s most successful politician of the early 21st century, has always employed a particularly English jocularity to sell what was a controversial platform, laughing us out of the EU eventually. But he’s not alone – in Italy and the Ukraine, comedians have risen to very highest office, and France may be next.

Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals that “through humour much is accepted that would have been rejected if presented seriously”. Or as comedian Andrew Doyle put it: “You’re far more likely to remember a joke than an argument.” But perhaps because we live in such a serious and pious climate, the authorities have never been more scared of jokes.

Earlier this year an EU report warned that online memes were a menace to society, potentially dangerous to social peace. These memes, it said, are being used “to rebrand extremist positions in an ironic guise, blurring the lines between mischief and potentially radicalising messaging. The result is a nihilistic form of humour that is directed against ethnic and sexual minorities and deemed to inspire violent fantasies — and eventually action.”

The document identified a number of popular Right-wing memes, including Pepe the Frog and Wojak, the former symbolising “a kind of superior nonchalance toward others, helping to normalise hostile attitudes toward minorities and political opponents” and “anti-elite arrogance and condescension”.

Pepe the Frog became a household name about five years ago during an election that involved humour to an unusual degree. At the start of September 2016, after Hilary Clinton had made a speech attacking her opponents as a “basket of deplorables”, Donald Trump Jr posted on Instagram a doctored photo of the Sylvester Stallone film The Expendables replaced with The Deplorables, with a line-up of Trumpians, including the Donald, his even more repellent son, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and… Pepe the Frog.

Pepe was originally a harmless cartoon amphibian who occasionally peed himself, so old in internet terms that he first appeared on MySpace, back in 2005, and it was only in 2015 that it begun to be adopted by users of the notorious 4chan website.

When Trump announced his candidacy in June that year countless images of Pepe wearing a Make America Great Again cap began appearing on the site, seen as a veritable womb of trolling. Clinton then denounced Pepe as a symbol of white supremacism, joining a long list of often arcane supposed white nationalist signals, from milk to the okay sign.

The frog came to represent an online movement of meme-creating, often involving quite creative pranks. During that election, countless online comment pieces and reports focused on the influence of 4chan, written with the horror of a strait-laced reporter investigating the dangerous phenomenon of Mods or hippies (and continuing a long history of journalists misunderstanding the site). Trump’s win was viewed as a sort of 4chan troll that got out of hand, or as one user put it: “We actually elected a meme as president.”

Some of the site’s users were clearly delighted about the election win, but it seemed primarily motivated by the pain it would cause to pious, sanctimonious actors, hysterical commentators and the rest of the progressive establishment. The meme-creating trolls aim to shock and to wind up, and journalists – privileged, pompous and partisan – are obvious targets.

It’s this very organic nature of memes that makes them effective, an in-joke magnified. They cannot really be controlled or faked. Their power depends on who is using them, and the Meme life cycle means that, by the time a 43-year-old journalist is writing about a meme, it’s probably dead.

Authenticity is the key, and Clinton’s attempt at making popular cultural references aimed at younger voters always sounded flat. Similarly, just as Hillary’s Twitter account was clearly written by a group of insufferable Ivy League graduates, especially crafted for the election strategy, Trump’s tweets were obviously written by the mad bastard himself; they were authentic, just as he was authentic, and, despite his immense faults as a human being, also very funny.

Many memes aren’t necessarily far-Right or even Right-wing but are just socially obscene, which is basically the same thing now. For example, Norf FC, a satire of English football fans, would certainly be considered “problematic”, to use the language of sanctimonious bores who police discourse. Originating on 4chan, it’s decidedly offensive but also funny, at its best a modern-day Hogarth, making fun of certain aspects of English life, including the English abroad, their obsession with football above all else, and their tendency to drink and fight. But it has also expanded organically to cover our history, including the Napoleonic Wars and the Roman invasion. (A remake of Our Island Story but illustrated with Norf FC would make an excellent book).

Then there is Wojak, perhaps the most popular of Right-wing memes, and arguably the bleakest. The EU report describes how the meme “has gradually been adapted and advanced by far-Right meme culture to portray liberals with blank expressions” who “do not question the information that comes from mainstream press and politics”.

One of the earliest variations of Wojak was NPC, or Non-Player Character Wojak, a grey, lifeless figure who repeats empty phrases like ‘‘The future is female” and “Reality has a liberal bias”. “NPC” comes from online gaming, and reflects the view that most of the population are mindlessly conformist, lapping up the low-brow mass culture which carries a shallow progressive message, and repeating it.

Wojak has evolved into various other forms — Withered Wojak is a favourite, often used in response to the latest self-harm masquerading as life advice spread by journalists and other opinion formers, or to children being exposed to drag queens, or the most recent race-baiting directives from on high. He represents despair that this will never be over and will only get worse.

Then there is Soyjak, who with his mouth agape in pathetic admiration is not just physically unimpressive, but mentally emasculated, desperate to win the approval of women and of polite society. The name stems from the common Right-wing belief that the consumption of soy reduces testosterone, while the facial expression – also known as “cuckface” – comes from the idea that an open mouth is associated with lower social status and submissiveness among male primates. This was a scientific theory first posted on a 4chan messageboard, which is good enough citation for me.

Soyjak is often paired with Gigachad, a manly, ubermensch figure (in reality an Azeri model called Ernest Khalimov, who apparently is vaguely aware of how his image has become a meme but otherwise lives a wholesome life far away from this madness). Soyjak and Gigachad often appear together in memes, the former hysterical about something of little real importance, the latter relaxed and happy, unafflicted by modernity-afflicted neurosis.

Strangely, the Soyjak and Gigachad meme has its antecedent in Soviet propaganda about cuckface factory bosses and Gigachad communists. However, the muscle-bound Gigachad is a sort of Right-wing masculine ideal, although a cynic might suspect that most of the people posting these memes have a stronger resemblance to Soyjak (just a wild guess).

Some of the memes are funny and imaginative; “Should have let us grill” pays tribute to Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matters protesters trespassing on their estate. It’s a play on “grillpill”, a Left-wing meme about babyboomers and their “I don’t care about politics, I just wanna grill” mindset. The McCloskey meme, in contrast, laments a hellish progressive world where everything is political and no one can be left to grill in peace without being bothered by ideological fanatics. Those ideologues now seem to be in control, which explains why so many popular memes come from the Right; hence the popular expression “The Left can’t meme” – which is a meme itself.

If this is the first art form since the late 19th century in which the Right has dominated, that only reflects who is in control of culture, and particular its taboos; it’s the very willingness of meme-creators to upset these taboos that the likes of the EU Commission find so disturbing, since without them all sorts of social norms might break down.

Yet that is what art has often sought to do. While writers, playwrights and artists from the late 19th century increasingly saw themselves in moral opposition to the establishment — the monarch, the church, even to bourgeoise sexual morality — since the 1960s progressives have taken over the commanding heights of culture both in the United States and Britain, meaning that much of the art world has lost the place of opposition in which it feels most comfortable.

Revolutionaries in the past have faced a similar problem. The EU report looked at the possibilities of “attempting to counter extremist humour with a form of alternative humour”, which it concedes is very difficult, and this is indeed what was attempted after the revolution in Russia. There, political jokes were banned as “anti-Soviet propaganda” and were replaced “with their own brand of dull official humour, which they disseminated in satirical magazines”, in the words of Ben Lewis, author of Hammer and Tickle.

These new official jokes were often about peasant stupidity, or when they made fun of the system, it was because it wasn’t being properly implemented by local officials; the beliefs behind that system were sacrosanct. As a result “there were now two kinds of humour: official and unofficial – the written and the spoken, the public and the private. In the censored void, a culture of the spoken joke would develop, a collective satirical work produced by the whole population”.

A similar pattern occurred in the West when, following our cultural revolution, new taboos replaced old ones, but mainstream humour failed to maintain its role of undermining them. Satirical comedy stopped laughing at prevailing ideas but instead, with Michael Moore and then The Daily Show, began making stupid peasants – older, rural Republican voters – the punchline.

The same is true in Britain, where the Right has limited political power and the Left has unlimited cultural power; following the American lead with Wojak-like conformity, British clapter-comedy such as the Mash Report, where the audience applauds rather than laughs, has made the political out-group the butt of jokes, while avoiding the sort of unspoken, absurd truths that make political humour bite.

The same is largely true of consciously “anti-woke” comedy, much of which is very poor quality; or, if I were to be charitable, is aimed at older people. Perhaps it is because it employs a similar tactic to clapter, using a political out-group as a punchline, without in any way hitting a taboo. Memes, in contrast, are more provocative and darker, coming from a place of genuine contempt and despair.

Whoever the people making it, anything that grinds away at taboos is going to be at least mildly funny; laughter is a release from social norms. When I was a child, there was still the great British tradition of schoolboys drawing pictures of penises on religious figures in books, an almost instinctive desire to shock and mock; it’s funny because of the reaction it would provoke. Today even publicly desecrating Christ barely registers, yet when a pissed Man City fan drew a willy on a Marcus Rashford mural it led to a public meltdown — and even a vigil — because of a fear it had broken our number one taboo, race.

It’s not that the Left can’t meme, it’s just that Left-wing beliefs don’t trigger taboos, even quite extreme Left-wing beliefs, so there is no need for them to employ the memetic equivalent of criminal cant to conceal their views. The sort of internet culture epitomised by 4chan aims to shock, and as the prevailing culture has become more progressive and censorious, it has grown more outrageous in blaspheming that new moral code.

If the likes of Wojak are popular, it’s partly because the cultural atmosphere feels quite heavy at times, so much so that many conservatives live a sort of coded existence in public life, the equivalent of taqiyya, the Shia Muslim practice of shielding your true opinions. They can either learn to keep their views quiet, or heavily-qualified, or they can become social pariahs. Humour, especially arcane, coded humour, is an escape.

Offensive as these memes are to polite society, the idea that Pepe and Wojak are going to normalise extreme-Right politics, or even centre-Right politics, is outlandish. Much of the time they are shared to provoke, or as a joke, but it’s also the case that much of the online Right is play-acting anyway, whether pretend trads or fake fascists – they’re all the children of liberalism. The problem is that, like the Russian revolutionaries before them, the post-1968 progressives now find themselves no longer rebels but rulers, and facing the difficult task of policing social norms and keeping the peasants in line.