The Irony of Politics

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Uncategorized

I spent an hour this past Thursday morning involved in an argument over beer. While this isn’t unusual (even in the morning), instead of having it in the pub with my friend Daniel over what our next pint should be, this argument was held over twitter, with a prominent commentator in the field of Russian studies. It all started with a retweet of a picture by Ariana Gic Perry, editor at the Intersection Project, of a new brand of stout at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

Bolshevik Bastard

Perry was outraged that a Canadian public corporation would sell Bolshevik Bastard Imperialist Stout, claiming that the label ignored (or maybe even endorsed) mass murder and oppression that took place under the Bolshevik regime, and urged a boycott of LCBO. She repeatedly asked me if I would drink a beer with a swastika on it, expressing equal disdain for other products I pointed out that bear the images of such distinguished figures as Mao, Che, Churchill and Napoleon. I even went so far as to point her in the direction of Hispter Hitler, a satirical cartoon poking fun at the Nazi dictator (you can buy hilarious shirts there!), but it ended up being wasted breath. Perry clearly feels that using a symbol like the hammer and sickle or the swastika somehow means acceptance of dictatorship and/or racism not matter how it is used.

This discussion got me thinking about the role of irony and satire in political awareness, especially in light of the fact I have enjoyed classic examples in the past. Was I part of the problem, promoting acceptance of unsavory government or practices? Watching the British comedy classic ‘Allo ‘Allo is one of my fondest childhood memories. The escapades of the stereotypically horny French resistance fighters against the oafishly stern and methodical Nazi occupiers of France saw me splitting my sides as Herr Flick of the Gestapo saw his staff car run over by a steam roller, or watching Private Helga Geerhart of the Wehrmacht prance about in her outrageous (swastika covered) lingerie.ScSGrLsF_400x400 Closer to home I used to cheer on the obstructionist and self-serving Sir Humphrey Appleby as he stymied the Right Honourable Jim Hacker’s in Yes Minister’s caricature exposing the inadequacies of parliamentary democracy. These iconic shows became some of the most popular in British comedy history.

Watching these shows, or enjoying watching Roger Moore’s James Bond cooperate with Soviet (GASP!) Agent Triple X to defeat an international criminal mastermind, didn’t dull my perception of the crimes of the Nazi or Soviet regimes, or leave me with an impression that a life in government is only about self-advancement and privilege. If anything they are partly responsible for how I grew up interested in politics and international relations. What I enjoyed as satire in my spare time as a young man, fueled my studies as serious academic and eventually my career in politics and global economics.

Moreover, satire and the ability to poke fun as serious political subjects is one of the characteristics of a mature and confident polity. Thankfully Canada and the UK are not places where I can be arrested for denigrating the honour of the state or for making fun of historical figures. For someone as apparently concerned with the ramifications of political satire as Perry, I would hope she is aware of the critical role it played in shaping public perceptions about the regime through spontaneous street theatre by Otpor in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, to take only one example.

As I tried but failed to explain to her, the fact someone is using a hammer and sickle on a beer in the LCBO, doesn’t diminish the scale of Bolshevik crimes or mean that they are not taken as a serious subject. Discussion and debate concerning them goes on in the classroom, the seminar, or at the conference; not necessarily in the liquor store. If anything satire of this kind is an essential weapon in the fight against injustice and oppression. The countervailing view, that we should ban or boycott anything that denigrates the seriousness of the subject, ironically, does more harm than good.

So to all my many friends who I know are passionate about politics and to all my former classmates and colleagues from European and Russian studies who are working to better understand Russia’s history and current struggle for democracy, I urge you to get to your nearest LCBO and down a Bolshevik Bastard at once!

  1. From what I’ve seen, Perry is extremely unreasonable. Total waste of time trying to debate or discuss with her!

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