Count Dankula, otherwise known as 29-year-old Markus Meechan from Coatbridge, is a successful columnist. He works in both written commentaries and videos, and has a following of hundreds of thousands, whose support gives him a good living. When, earlier this year, he was fined £800 in a Scottish court, he reportedly received over £100,000 in donations.
The court found that he had committed a 'grossly offensive' crime under the Communications Act. Irritated by his girlfriend's constant affection for her small pug dog, he had thought: what is the worst thing to which I can liken this dog? He chose the most common synonym for modern evil – a Nazi.
With some difficulty, he trained the dog to raise its paw as if in a Nazi salute, in response to Meechan saying 'seig heil' (hail victory: the phrase called out when giving the Nazi salute); or 'gas the Jews.' He then videod the trick and put it on You Tube. Finding him guilty, Sheriff Derek O'Carroll told him: 'You purposely used the command "gas the Jews" as the centrepiece of what you called the entire joke, surrounding the "gas the Jews" centrepiece with Nazi imagery and the "seig heil" command so there could be no doubt what historical events you were referring to.' O'Carroll said that freedom of expression was important – but that 'in all modern democratic countries the law necessarily places some limits on that right.'
Meechan, and others who supported him – including Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais, the CEO of Index on Censorship Jodie Ginsberg – said that however offensive the video was, freedom of speech protected it. Ginsberg said: 'Defending everyone's right to free speech must include defending the rights of those who say things we find shocking or offensive, otherwise the freedom is meaningless.' Meechan appealed against the ruling, but the appeal wasn't allowed. He responded by saying he wouldn't pay the fine, courting a jail sentence.
His lawyer, Ross Brown, described him as 'a liberal and tolerant man.' He describes himself as a 'classic liberal,' taking his place alongside other commentators with follower bases running into the hundreds of thousands, such as Paul Joseph Watson (the most famed) and Carl Benjamin, otherwise Sargon of Akkad – all of whom use the same self-description. They, with others, have recently joined UKIP: Meechan spoke at the conference, to great applause.
His line on the Nazi pug is that it was an elaborate jest: a practical joke played on his girlfriend, which expressed nothing of his views on Hitler or on Jews. His line – and that of his comrades-in-arms on You Tube – is that they are fighting back against political correctness, leftist censorship, and mainstream media excision of all points of view, but with an approved narrative of social liberalism. Feminism, transgenderism, anti-Trumpism are particular hate objects.
They live – and earn – to shock. Several of the 'classic liberals' work with Infowars, the channels created by the US talk show host Alex Jones, a friend of President Trump and a tireless conspiracy theorist – he believes that the murder of 20 children and six teachers in December 2012 at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, did not take place.
I am with Ginsberg and others, that a free speech defence covers Meechan's Nazi pug video. But it's worth asking at what level he, and his comrades, are working. For they position themselves between the two rationales Meechan gave for his work – one, that it's a joke and two, that it's a reaction to political correctness and mainstream suppression. The first claim is that it's harmless, a bit of fun, an exercise in irony that straight people don't get.
The second is that it's a movement, a political position which is, implicitly or explicitly, seeking others to join it. UKIP is a political party, which is now being revived: the accession of the classic liberals has boosted their membership. As no other party does, UKIP is reaching into an area of the internet in which a large number of mainly young men and women live for parts of their days and nights, and will presumably try to fashion them into a political force.
Yet the claim that it's a playful thing – a throwing up in the air of shocking statements in which those who utter them don't believe, but merely wish to see who's shocked, and who's hip to the joke – is not mere rationalising. The internet and social media have that quality: one of distancing the words and images from everyday events, and constructing a virtual world of narratives in which to shock is merely another gambit. Meechan is probably sincere when he told the UKIP conference that he wasn't a racist. For him and others, a real racist is someone who does something about a hatred of other races: they are only playing with
words and images, and playing on
In his great speech in the 'Merchant of Venice,' Shylock asks rhetorically 'If you tickle us, do we not laugh?' Would a Jew be tickled by Meechan's joke, and be able to laugh? I asked one, a young and net-savvy friend: he said: 'Yeah, maybe. In any case, this isn't the return of the Nazis.' I don't think it is either. But what is it? What will it do to our society?