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.