Adam Hills says cystitis, Razer says ISIS

When my mother was knee-high to an usherette, she adored the movies. The opulent reveries of MGM were her preference, but she’d always sit through the wartime newsreel while waiting for Garland to sing. The vision of handsome diggers, their “Fuzzy wuzzy” serfs and clean cut allied courage seemed real at the time. Years later, Judy’s performances retain much more of a foothold in truth. Judy might have been chasing rainbows, but propagandists dared to claim they had the actual rainbow in the bag.

Garland is forever, but state-endorsed bullshit does not live well past its era. Time has robbed the old Cinesound productions of their claims to truth. We now see this view of war as stylised and political. We look at old recruitment posters and laugh at their ideality. How were people so naïve?! Still, we fail to identify the processes that promote support for a war in our own time. We believe ourselves to be free to identify the enemy.

We may feel that we choose to overlay our Facebook avatar with the Tricolore today. Seventy years ago, my mother felt that she freely chose to wave the Union Jack. And, comedian Adam Hills clearly feels equally free in his patriotic war effort.

Recently on his popular light entertainment Last Leg, Hills has been striving to “make ISIS look like dicks”. This is a peculiar act on several counts, not the least of which is that just about every citizen on the planet, including and especially Muslims, thinks that ISIS are dicks. Nonetheless, Hills believes his flag waving to be of vital importance and has recently addressed his motivations to what we must suppose is a conservative audience.

It appears that Hill’s consciously light-hearted approach to war has seen him criticised as a “leftie wanker”. Just how one might interpret the man’s comic echo of Coalition policy as “leftie” is anybody’s guess — perhaps this critique came more directly from his call to see a powerless and widely reviled former politician suspended from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Even here, calling for the metaphoric crucifixion of Pauline Hanson is about as courageously “leftie” as saying that you don’t approve of cancer. Holding a majority view is never brave and rarely is it “leftie”. You don’t get to affirm the title “leftie”, even if offered to you as a slur, for creating propaganda.

Quite curiously, Hills has offered that he has volunteered as a propagandist. “I might be an unfunny leftie wanker,” he says on Facebook “but I’m no traitor”. His series of ISIS-pillorying sketches, in which he strives to humiliate the militia through the use of the Benny Hill theme song, is a project he says he undertook for the war effort.

According to his Facebook post, Hills has followed the advice of functionaries of the Australian High Commission. Apparently, he has been informed that he can embarrass extremists into laying down their Kalashnikovs.

Let’s ignore that Hills’ belief that “what your government wants you to do” is a good thing. Let’s suppose that western foreign policy is awesome. Let’s suppose that this war is a just one and even allow that, suddenly, it is the necessary work of comedians to endorse state policy, and not to criticise it. If Hills wishes to be a noble organ for the state, then perhaps he might have thought about seeking expert counsel on comic propaganda beyond a diplomatic cocktail event.

Hills’ explicit advice to his fans to do as he does and “call ISIS cystitis” is not, in the view of many counter-terrorism reports, a useful strategy. In fact, it might be a counterproductive one. While Hills plainly feels that he has received elite instruction over crudités, there is a serious body of study that suggests that humiliation does not work terribly well as a cultural tactic.

This report, prepared by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, provides pages of advice to local institutions, including media, on the kinds of communication that may work to reduce the threat of local jihadism. Nowhere does the organisation recommend “taking the piss”. Everywhere, it reminds communicators that they are stepping on a “linguistic minefield”.

Research on counter-terrorism is, of course, vital. And probably something that patriotic comedians so ardent in their free choice to help the war effort should probably read. But, call me old-fashioned, I dunno if we need to read footnoted advice that “taking the piss” out of a radical organisation is a potentially hazardous act. I mean, isn’t it obvious?

Hill’s anti-ISIS comedy is not, as he likely believes, going to be understood as an act of “punching up”. It may very well be read by someone on the brink of radicalisation as just more of the same humiliation that led them to extremist views.

Hills is a very funny man but I don’t know if he is gifted of comic power sufficient to tip a young, profoundly alienated person back to seeing the sense in “what your government wants”.

This is not, of course, for even a millisecond to suggest that what ISIS needs right now is a hug. But, what deeply alienated people might do with a bit of is understanding. This is not a “leftie” presentation, but a view that is informed by just a little reading on counter-terrorism expertise.

A public person needs to understand exactly what they’re criticising in order to effectively criticise it. And, not to demean our diplomats, but I am not sure if the High Commission’s advice, if correctly understood by Hills, to “take the piss” out of dangerous sectarian organisations qualifies as a counter-terrorist understanding. To me, it sounds like a half-arsed conversation over drinks.

I do understand the comic appeal of rhyming ISIS with cystitis. And, if Hills’ intention here was simply to raise a laugh, his advice to do this could be more easily forgiven. As it is, though, he has charged himself with the serious flag-waving work of bolstering the war effort. He might want to re-think his strategy. Or, revert to selling war bonds like the patriotic celebrities of my mother’s extreme youth.

This is not to call Hills a dangerous person. It is certainly not to question his patriotic intention. It is, however, to suggest that none of us, whether prominent comedian or meme-sharer, are necessarily free or well-advised in our foreign policy presentations. And it is to remember that Judy Garland will be beautiful and true forever, while propaganda quickly becomes ugly falsehood.

25 responses to “Adam Hills says cystitis, Razer says ISIS

  1. Adam used to be funny – not anymore – silly man – making lotsa dollars though – good on him – let’s see if he can live with himself – most comedians can’t – although…not a comedian in my opinion……

  2. Simply – thanks Helen

    Thanks for articulating what my slightly squirming discomfort at watching Adam make these points really means.

    It is an interesting range of responses you have garnered. I need to make it clear that I am not frightened by his comments or worried at their consequence. I also generally like Adam, although am also frequently disappointed by his Australian caricature so I am neither for or against him.

    I am though very much FOR reasoned, considered and strategic responses to a complex problem and in this regard his offerings just look childish and intellectually thin.

    1. Yes. I was also careful not to say that I thought Hills was dangerous.
      But, it is his explicitly stated intention to have influence. And I know he said he received instruction from a mate at the High Commission but given the very serious body of work written and researched by scholars on the *correct* way to speak, none of which seems to tally with the diplomat’s advice (presuming Hills understood it properly) he might have taken his self-imposed project a bit more seriously. SO, if he believes he does wield influence, and clearly he does, he might crack open a study.
      And, seriously. “Let;s make fun” is just not commonsense.

  3. Wasn’t the joke cystisis rather than cystitis? But I agree mockery isn’t the best approach to an ideological battle. Rational debate and free criticism of the holy book upon which religious extremists base their justifications might work better. Addressing the root causes of alienation within our own society is even better. Thank you for making these points Helen Razer.

  4. “Hills is a very funny man….”

    Yeah, maybe he is funny, if you’ve been inhaling large volumes of nitrous oxide. There’d be far better options for you than watching Mr Hills, if you happened to be in that altered state of mind, and I’m not recommending any personal chemical mood alteration ;) Adam Hills is to funny what Dr Karl is to science – global warming, what global warming?

    On a serious note, I read a very good article (in the Atlantic) about the choice of words we use to describe the enemy. The author argued that its not a smart idea to call them ISIS (or ISIL or IS), because these titles (ie acronyms) include the word “State”. By calling them IS or ISIS etc, we are recognising that a bunch of terrorists are a State (or calliphate), which they are NOT and never will be. If we stopped calling them IS or ISIS etc and called them Daesh instead (or ‘utter bastards’ etc), it would help to delegitimise their status and undermine their cause.

    If you make fun of ISIS or IS etc by giving them these names, then you are still acknowledging that they are part of a State, when they are really just a bunch of criminals and terrorists, who got lucky by ripping off the arenal of weapons left in Iraq by the dumb Americans.

    1. Not to be all History Teacher on you. But I think this militia values the idea of the nation state a lot less than you seem to presume. The nation state, as IS recruits are often told (see it in the VICE documentary) is a western imposition.
      I know we do not question the value of the state and just think it “is”. There are those in the world who do not share this view. As such, I think this “Daesh” rebranding attempt by the west is probably going to be a lot less effective than its intention.

  5. I think you’re wrong just about everywhere.

    Adam Hills is not a very funny man, though he tries hard, one of the unfunny things. We’ve got too many unfunny hard trying comedians. They’re sad to see when they’re failing.

    But you’re just boring, though you try hard. We’ve got too many boring hard trying journalists. They’re sad to see when they’re failing.

    But you’re the same as the comedians, aren’t you? Just trying to make quid and somehow stay in the public eye.

    ah well. better than daesh I guess.

  6. Hello Helen,

    It is with great disgust I read this article. It is clear you have an agenda to distort the facts in attempt to publish an “entertaining” article.

    The fact you say “perhaps this critique came more directly from his call to see a powerless and widely reviled former politician suspended from the Sydney Harbour Bridge” proves my point perfectly. That is clearly not true and you would know that if you have done any research on this topic – but I suppose you think it encourages the one-sided/biased message you are publishing, so you left it in. That’s shameful.

    I hope for better in the future.

    Yours sincerely,

    Margaret.

  7. I think there is a misprint in this article. The fifth paragraph from the end opens with “Hills is a very funny man”.

    I think there is an “un” missing.

    1. Honestly, I’ve seen his stand up and he can be very funny. He’s got the gift.
      That this natural talent may have been buried by his apolitical efforts to be right on is a discussion for another time!

  8. Yes, I also wondered if the advice given by consulate officials was worth much too, but it should also be mentioned that throughout each of his cyst-isis monologues, he stresses the difference between a true muslim and a cyst-isis follower. Adam urges all people to stand arm in arm with Muslims, and that is his method of reducing the disenchantised youth from wanting to join cyst-isis

    1. Sure. But his better anti-racist intentions aren’t the point, here. His efforts to endorse a war are the point and his mild efforts at promoting cultural peace do not negate the fact of his voluntary war propaganda.
      He may oppose racism. He supports the war.

  9. Arrghhh, you made me click on a Daily telegraph webpage, without a warning.

    Dang!

    God knows, I’m getting lots or evidence accumulating that I should just pull my head in, but I suspect that you are right in suggesting that this is not Adam’s most fruitful or funny line of commentary.

    But I do like him generally. Just not his best work. I know that feeling.

  10. Sorry, have you watched Adam Hills’ Last Leg before? No way does he ever stick up for the government and policy. You may be interested to know a couple of series ago he took on Putin’s stance on gay rights and had to stop when MI5 told him he was in a bit of danger. And the audience is most definitely not conservative – it’s screened on Channel 4 in the UK – the Aus equivalent of SBS. I really don’t get your read of what he’s doing at all….

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