As If... 13/11/19

Satirist MARTIN ROWSON kicks off his regular new column with an explanation of why making political jokes can be deadly serious.


I must emphasise that this is just a joke, though of course jokes are very dangerous things in the wrong hands. Anyway, since around half way through his first term as part-time Mayor of London, I’ve been saying publicly, on social media and at literary festivals and on the radio and anywhere else I can, that Boris Johnson is a KGB sleeper agent.

For the record, I used to qualify that by claiming he’s also an albino, though following complaints from genuine albinos I’ve dropped that bit. As a satirist, it’s my primary duty always to punch up, never kick down. Still, the point remains. It’s just a joke; a gag; a tease; part of the ceaseless to-and-fro taunting that makes politics and every other human enterprise more fun than they might otherwise be. After all, jokes are one of the things we humans are actually really good at, unlike the higher calculus or diplomacy but like jumping up and down and genocide.

As to the joke itself, its mechanics work as follows:

a) It starts by inverting accepted reality as espoused in the classic Tory Press libel that the whole of the Left are traitors in the pocket of Moscow by standing the libel on its head and levelling it against the Right instead;

b) Having created the instigating shock of inverting the old cliche, it then re-inverts with my next observation that he’s obviously a KGB agent because he’s called “Boris”, undermining what could be a compelling & tangled conspiracy theory with the sucker punch of The Ludicrous Obvious;

c) The joke is then further inverted and compounded by my final assertion that the incontrovertible truth of the lie is the fact that only the KGB would be brilliant enough in the dungeons of the Lubyanka to create (out of old leather satchels, badger suet and the pubic hair of yaks and yeti) such a wholly unconvincing caricature of an upper-class Englishman while also knowing that we Brits would be dumb enough to fall for it. Thus is an alternative satirical narrative created, of our current Prime Minister as a kind of Bolshevik golem created to undermine Britain while hiding in clear sight. But it’s a joke. It’s obviously a joke. Obviously.

Except, of course, for the fact that satire is eternally being outstripped by brute reality. The satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer famously quit after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, on the basis that you couldn’t make up something that mad and gross. Over and over again in my own career, I’ve found myself furiously trying to catch up with the grown-ups when once again, through combinations of malice and stupidity, they implement policies so breathtakingly and appallingly ludicrous you couldn’t make them up. More to the point, Jonathan Swift couldn’t have made them up, like the BSE crisis 25 years ago, when as a consequence of closing rural abattoirs and the requirement for cheap food, our national dish was rendered deadly because we made our cows eat the brains of their own kind. Worse, before killing you, eating our national dish would first drive you mad. Worse still, we then entered a trade war with our closest trading partners in order to force them to eat our deadly national dish, which would first drive them mad before it killed them.

This capacity for stealing our shtik has been available as a counterploy by satirised pols forever, and turning the joke on us is just a milder alternative to imprisoning us or torturing us to death. John Wilkes, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher all expropriated satires on themselves and used them to their own advantage. That said, this doesn’t mean satire never works, it just works differently from the way you might imagine. It’s not there - whatever we may imagine in our more pompous moments - to drive the tyrants from power and bring about universal happiness; all it does is license us to laugh at people who want to control our destinies and be treated like gods. Laughing at them simply degrades their potential for this, which is why in the unhealthiest polities satirists are murdered with such regularity by the henchmen of the high and mighty (this includes God, by the way). That they thus reveal themselves to be a hopeless bunch of whining snowflakes is entirely the point. Indeed, one of the most heartening things I’ve heard recently is how President Xi of China - who last year was elected by the Congress of the People leader of China in Perpetuity and whose “philosophy”, such as it is beyond worshipping Xi forever, has now been written into the Chinese Constitution. And yet recently Xi banned Winnie the Pooh from China because he’d been repeatedly drawn as the honey-loving bear of very little brain by the Melbourne-based dissident cartoonist Badiucao. When I interviewed him at Tate Modern last month, I asked Badiucao what it felt like knowing that the second most powerful man on Earth was frightened of him. He said it felt great, despite the dangers his drawings have brought down on him and his family.

But what happens when the lines of demarcation get seriously blurred? Last week the Tories engaged in yet another so-fucking-ludicrous-you-couldn’t-make-it-up exercise, when the Daily Telegraph ran an article by Boris Johnson asserting Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude to billionaires was worse than Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks at the same time as some smirking goons in Tory Central Office doctored TV footage of Keir Starmer to make him look gormless, in precisely the same way as Stalin’s own goons would doctor photographs to airbrush out his enemies. So far, so standard. But it then became truly weird when Tory Chairman James Cleverly claimed they were only being “light-hearted and satirical”. Yeah, right.

The point here isn’t that the usually satirised shouldn’t invade our territory because they’re rubbish at it (although they are: after a second’s reflection, the reputedly hilarious Boris Johnson is revealed as truly, deeply unfunny except to sycophants and Tories and lands a punchline like the R101). During the European elections this May, you’ll recall all those UKIP candidates laughing off their volleys of rape threats and racism as “jokes”; Rod Liddle and his sniggering cadres on The Spectator peddle the same line on a weekly basis. The purpose, ultimately, is the opposite of satire. Instead of speaking truth to power by laughing at it, the intention is just to laugh things off to the point where nothing really matters because nothing is either serious or taken seriously. From there it’s a tiny step to printing your own licence to do absolutely anything at all, however serious - or even deadly - the consequences are for everyone else. And though no one tried out the “it’s only a joke” defence at the Nuremberg Tribunals, I have the hideous feeling they’ll sure as hell give it a go the next time round.

You really couldn’t make it up. Just like Boris Johnson obviously isn’t really a KGB sleeper agent. Obviously. As if…

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