First They Came For The Comedians

By Rebecca Christiansen

    Well, it’s happened. Count Dankula, real name Markus Meechan, has had his sentence handed to him: an eight-hundred pound fine.

    As most readers probably know, on March 20th, Meechan was found guilty in a UK court under the Communications Act of being “grossly offensive.” He was first arrested in 2016 after posting a video to YouTube wherein he showed his pug, Buddha, watching videos of Adolf Hitler’s speeches and reacting to the cues “gas the Jews” and “seig heil” by raising his little paw in a salute—as best he could, being a fat little pug whose front legs don’t really move that way. The conviction caused an uproar online among Meechan’s fans and free speech advocates in general, sparking public shows of support from Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Pie, among others.

    While the sentence brings relief for Meechan, his girlfriend, and his family, the very fact of a guilty verdict and a punishment for a joke remains despicable. Even watching this whole ordeal play out from an ocean away in Canada has made me sick to my stomach. That this could happen in the United Kingdom, the birthplace of liberalism and a bastion of free speech, is both disturbing and, unfortunately, hardly surprising. The UK has lead the charge for hate speech laws and “compassion”-based legislation over the past few decades, taking its reputation as a polite and upstanding nation to the extreme and weaponizing it against its own citizens when they dare to step outside the politically correct orthodoxy. Long ago they inserted the thin edge of the wedge, and now that they think they can get away with it, they’re driving it deeper and deeper. Regardless of Count Dankula’s sentence, this is not okay, and we have to stand up now. Citizens of the United Kingdom need to use what free speech they still have, and concerned citizens abroad must use theirs.

    Last night, Meechan did a livestream on YouTube entitled “Dead Man Walking.” His girlfriend, Sue, appeared with him for the first few hours of the stream. They intended it to be a light-hearted stream where they chatted with viewers and read out superchats, but there were moments of bittersweetness that brought tears to my eyes. Sue was clearly a lot more emotional than she was letting on, and at quiet moments when she admitted her sadness, tough-guy Count Dankula softened in response, assuring her that things would be okay, that she would be okay. My boyfriend and I are of similar ages to Sue and Dank, and similar hardy, working-class stock. I saw us in their tenderness and the cheeky banter they used to cover it up, and I had the rather disturbing thought that that could be us someday—meme-ing to cheer ourselves up on the eve of possible incarceration for a joke.

    On the livestream, Meechan mentioned that he and his legal team will be appealing his conviction, both to remove the smear from Meechan’s name and to remove the legal precedent from the record so that future cases will not be subject to the same ridiculous, context-disregarding methods used by the judge. With the recent case of Chelsea Russell, a nineteen-year-old Liverpool woman convicted for posting rap lyrics containing a racist term to her Instagram profile, it’s clear that this appeal will only become more necessary and desperately important.

    And for those who scoff, who say “I don’t have to worry, I’m never going to make a Nazi joke” or “I don’t have to worry, I’m never going to put a racist song lyric in my Instagram profile,” I have this to say: maybe you’re safe… but only for now. The slow creep of censorship begins by smothering those whose views might make most of us raise our eyebrows or cover our mouths, even secretly celebrate their silence. They start there because there will be few who stand up to defend those people and their opinions, and so the first strides toward totalitarianism go unopposed. From there, the censorship picks up steam, and comedians, our court jesters who question orthodoxy and authority and uncover hypocrisy, are clear targets.

    In the 1940s, German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller wrote the poem “First They Came…” about the cowardly Germans who did not speak up for the minorities the Nazis persecuted, and how the noose tightened and tightened until they themselves were persecuted, too. Right now, the battle for free speech may be being fought for people who make questionable jokes, but if we do not stand up, there will be no one to stand up for us when they come for us, too.

    First they came for the comedians…