Sep 4, 2017

Comedian Frankie Boyle Responds to Criticism of Tevor Noah's Characterization of Antifa

By Frankie Boyle /
Comedian Frankie Boyle Responds to Criticism of Tevor Noah's Characterization of Antifa

Today I saw a few people I respect enough not to have muted taking a tilt at Trevor Noah for some bit where he called out antifa, and called them “Vegan Isis”. This will sound snobbish, but I often cringe when well meaning types on the left address comedy. They sometimes have an attachment to ideas that don’t really play out that well if you think about them. “Speaking Truth To Power”, that’s something people have come to demand of comedy in the last decade or so. It’s an old Quaker term that was popularised during their resistance to the Vietnam War. I think it has literally been applied to comedy because it sounds quite good when you say it. What would be the point of me Speaking Truth to Theresa May? She would simply give me an amused look that simultaneously said “ You don’t know the half of it mate” and “How did you get past my security?”.

One thing I’d say is that any critique of a comedian that doesn’t quote the joke exactly is worthless. Noah doesn’t describe antifa as “Vegan Isis”, he says that if they commit acts of violence, people seeing it will think “They are Vegan Isis”. There is a difference between drawing an equivalence and noting that one will be drawn. Indeed, Noah is making exactly the same point about antifa violence being a propaganda victory for the right that Noam Chomsky made recently. Noah makes the distinction between doxing and outing of fascists - which he supports - and violence, which he sees as counterproductive. That’s not centrism, that’s a disagreement about strategy. Disagreements about strategy define movements, and distinguish them from cults.

In our society, violence is presented as a simplifying force; often to sell wars that we know will be complex and traumatic. This is often accomplished by creating a false absolute: presenting a simple choice between war and appeasement. Perhaps resistance movements internalise this: debating violence versus complicity, skipping over the hundreds of things that might be more useful than punching someone in the mouth. The person who wants a debate to descend to the level of punching is usually the person with the worst arguments. There are tremendous rewards for the left if the debate doesn’t descend to punching people in the head: fascist arguments are counterfactual, disproved by science, and associated with Adolf Hitler.

Of course, antifa are getting a ridiculous amount of attention when you consider what they are, the least dangerous militia in America. But isn’t that the point? Violence at demonstrations is easily parlayed by a corporate media into a faults on both sides narrative that excuses the inherent violence of fascists. Violence is such a gift for the status quo that agent provocateurs have been a staple of protests for centuries. What do fascists seek to achieve by demonstrating? They’re probably not hoping things will pass off peacefully so they can hand out a few leaflets, win people to their cause with the general carnival spirit. They crave a violent response because they know that it attracts a media response they would struggle to achieve on their often meagre numbers. Another question is, is it wise to reduce the argument to violence in a country where fascists are heavily armed?

As I get older, I think a lot of my tendency to sound off has to be laundered through an awareness of privilege. I’ve had some fascist threats, but really I’m a well off white guy. I can’t tell people how to organise, especially when they’re more directly affected by something than me. American cities are full of Salvadorans who lost relatives to US sponsored fascists in the 1980s. Who would say they shouldn’t punch a fascist if the opportunity presents itself? It would be like booing Indiana Jones. But by that same token, do you get to tell a black, African, political comedian what jokes he should tell in Trump’s America? I liked the bit, I watched it with my son this morning and we laughed. It’s a thoughtful, well written critique that risks being unpopular. In short, it’s what people are always telling you they want from comedy. Everyone thinks they want challenging comedy; the truth tends to be they like it best when it only challenges other people.

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