The French establishment faces a problem when it criticises the anti-semitic funnyman Dieudonné. He is cool. It is not. A politician like Francois Hollande is a bald, bespectacled, chubby short man with an awkward smile and a nervous manner, while a public intellectual like Bernard Henri-Levy is a foppish sexagenarian who should cover up his nipples. Dieudonné, meanwhile, looks like a cross between Richard Pryor and Father Christmas. As the censorious parties, meanwhile, Hollande and Levy seem shrill, humourless and draconian, while Dieudonné seems as if he is just trying to have some fun at the expense of the powers that be.
This is not to take the side of the Jew-baiting joker, though. Coolness, I think, is a talent that need have no correlation with admirability. Vladimir Putin is cool, but I don’t want to live beneath him. The dress and demeanor of his critics have no bearing on the fact that they are right to say that he is a coarse bigot who has wasted comic talents in the service of offence. His charisma, though, is necessary in explaining why sports stars will ape the reverse Nazi salute that he pioneered, as well as numerous smug, grinning Frenchmen, outside synagogues, memorials, the gates of Auschwitz and the school where just last year Mohammed Merah gunned down children for being Jewish.
Populist styles have undergone a gradual change. The ranting of a Father Coughlin or an Oswald Mosley would seem even more absurd today than it did years ago: hectoring and humourless to the irreverent individuals of our age. A new phenomenon is that of the comic demagogue: one who inspires disdain for the unlucky targets of their anger, and provokes change through scorn and satire. Dieudonné is not unlike another big, powerful man who has used his impressive talents in the Jew-baiting business: cheerful British-Israeli saxophonist Gilad Atzmon. Beppe Grillo has gone from comedian to candidate in Italy, while Russell Brand could claim to have been the most prominent radical voice of the last year. Now, I am not associating the values of Brand and Grillo with those of the former pair – and, indeed, comic demagogues might have very good ones – but I am drawing equivalence between their rhetorical tactics. Such men use similar methods, for good or for ill.
In a New Yorker profile of Dieudonné, the author noted that he “speaks as if he were baffled that he could ever give offence”. He is not making insults, he’s just telling jokes! One thing that struck me about Brand’s manifesto, as well, was its facade of flippancy: each new demand for an uprising being followed by a wisecrack. It would be a more tedious world if ideas were expressed in terms as dry as a loan shark’s tear ducts but my problem is that when dramatic sentiments are couched in facetious tones, earnest responses can be thought pompous. Well, people may speak and write as they desire but if one calls for revolution, never mind spend time with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one cannot be surprised if people respond in a less than matey, jocular style.
Dieudonné’s populism is a calculated force – exploiting not just the bitterness of les banlieues but the smugness of those middle class people who embrace fallacies about the virtues of offence. One can make splendid jokes that people think offensive. Foolish people, though, think that giving offence is comic in itself. Their laughter springs not from the recognition of truths but from the glee with which they flaunt their own supposed audaciousness. An offended response, then, only affirms their enjoyment. A response is to observe that they might not be so amused if one spoke choice words about their appearance or the nature of their parents’ morals. Another, though, is to state that enjoying the mere infliction of pain on others is not the act of a brave man but a common bully.
Ridicule be excused if peoples’ sensitivities are irrational to the point of being dangerous, and Jewish comedians have had great fun with the hypersensitive tendencies of others of their people, but imagining that this ennobles mocking the murder of people’s relatives by imitating their executioners is like suggesting that hysteria around child safety excuses abduction. How is it not right that people take offence at that? Perhaps Dieudonné has done us a small favour in illuminating a lesson for better natured comics: that sometimes people are reverential for a reason and there are few laughs to be had.
Anyway, thanks to his eccentric football friend this character may reach an audience across the English channel. It would not surprise me if his jokes are too French to appeal here, though nor would it surprise me if that is too optimistic. There is talk, on both sides of the sea, of banning him and his salute, which may be to increase their transgressive appeal. Lenny Bruce is a hero. Sherman Block is not. Still, I feel a great contempt for he and his followers. They pretend to be audacious in demeaning persecution, while elsewhere in Europe Jews face distrust, insults, attacks and, last year, even murder by a thug whose child-killing was then hailed as a heroism in some quarters of society. Cool? No. Nor funny. Cowardly, puerile and at least somewhat ridiculous.