When the film Four Lions came out I remember a friend saying how much more effective it would have been if, rather than ending on the farcical note it did, the movie showed one of the hapless, comical jihadis stumbling into a crowded place — and the next thing, muffled screams, alarms, the shrieks of agony as innocent people died. End credits.
Hapless jihadis are often very funny in real life, too, such as the Birmingham gang nicknamed “the real Four Lions” who were caught after buying bomb-making materials on eBay under the username “terrorshop”. The leader of the gang, the 23-stone Irfan Naseer aka “Chubbs”, wrote on his Friends Reunited Page, “Oh yah i’m also a terrorist hahahaha”. His co-conspirator Ashik Ali was caught on tape telling his wife that they were like the comedy figures from the film. And so it turned out — no one was hurt.
(There are so many similar cases I toyed with pitching a toilet book called The World’s Stupidest Jihadis but, as so many self-censoring artists have explained in not so many words, I rather prefer having my head on my shoulders.)
There was something similarly funny about the men who stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, the most prominent being QAnon “shaman” and actor Jake Angeli.
They are all intrinsically amusing figures. It is funny — until people start getting killed, that is.
The online Right in particular aim to be funny because their beliefs are disguised under layers of irony; this is partly because in some cases it starts off as a joke, until ironically-held Right-wing views become unironically held (I think this is the case with some of my opinions, too). But it’s partly because in a society in which conservatism is so stigmatised and liable to lead to professional and social sanction, irony works as a form of taqiya.
But it’s also the case that frustrated, unfulfilled men are both the funniest and the most dangerous members of society.
Most of the best comedy, certainly British comedy, centres on frustrated, bitter men who think they should be higher up in society, including Basil Fawlty, Albert Steptoe, Tony Hancock’s persona and David Brent. These are also the men who are the most politically dangerous.
With the caveat that almost all comparisons between today’s politics and Nazism are absurd, young Hitler was the original “incel”, as they’d call him today. A frustrated, failed man, who made grandiose plans for rebuilding Linz and putting on absurd operas while ranting in his bedroom, he was an inherently funny figure — until he wasn’t.
The danger, perhaps, is that it is now far easier to feel frustrated and trapped. Meritocracy and economic freedom increase the penalties of failure, and not just emotionally. There is reduced prestige for those outside the top; as a society we haven’t despised the unsuccessful and poor this much for a long time.
The emotional safety nets that used to protect against failure — religion, family and to some extent the class system itself — no longer exist. All that’s left is laughter. And irony.