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Harry versus the politically correct: But where is our sense of humour?

By Neil Clark - posted Wednesday, 19 January 2005

In David Lean's classic 1944 film This Happy Breed, husband and wife Frank and Ethel Gibbons pause for a moment to listen to a Blackshirt haranguing the crowd in Hyde Park, London. They glance at each other, smile and then utter the immortal words: "Let's go for a nice cup of tea."

In the midst of the brouhaha over Prince Harry's choice of costume for a private fancy dress party, it seems that the British are in great danger of losing the one thing which provided them with an important bulwark against the advance of fascism all those years ago - a sense of humour.

Some would say that the reason the Blackshirts were never a political force in Britain between the wars was that, unlike Germany, the country lacked a burning sense of post-World War I grievance. That may be true, but there is another factor. Oswald Mosley - unlike his fascist counterparts on the continent - never made it big in Britain, because people laughed at him.


For a small minority of bigots and anti-Semites, the British Hitler was indeed a visionary figure. But for everyone else, including Frank and Ethel Gibbons, the pretty-boy “aristo”, with his continual warnings of Jewish and Bolshevik conspiracies, was simply ridiculous. The most popular comic writer of the day, P.G. Wodehouse, sent Mosley up wonderfully with his creation of the frightful ass Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the "Black Shorts". It is difficult to see how anyone reading The Code of the Woosters - as millions of Britons did - could ever take Mosley, or any other fascist, seriously again. Now, 60 years after the military defeat of far-Right totalitarianism, a new and similarly po-faced threat to free thinking has arisen: political correctness.

It's a doctrine which, as we saw from last week's events, seeks to tell members of the British royal family what outfits they should wear to private fancy dress parties and what outfits they shouldn't. It also tries to tell the rest of us what it is acceptable to laugh at (musicals ridiculing Jesus OK; The Benny Hill Show not so OK).

The "new wave" comedian and politically correct activist Jeremy Hardy doesn't satirise or lampoon fascists as P.G. Wodehouse did - he merely says that supporters of the British National Party should be shot in the head. It's a solution the Fuhrer himself would no doubt have approved.

The PC brigade - personified by such fundamentally humourless individuals as Hardy - constantly urges us to take fascism seriously. But if we really want to ensure that the horrors of 60 years ago never happen again, then taking fascism seriously is the last thing we should be doing.

If you ever meet anyone who tells you Adolf had the right idea don't try engaging them in argument over the fallacies of Mein Kampf, or the preposterousness of Nazi racial theory.

Just go down to your local video-DVD store and buy them a copy of The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin. If the definition of a neo-conservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality; then the definition of a fascist is someone who's never seen Adenoid Hynkel's globe dance.


Vic Alhadeff, chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies holds that it is "offensive for anyone to wear a Nazi uniform". But surely the lampooning of Nazis in such films as The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be, and more recently, The Producers - whose stage-show spin-off is currently playing to packed houses in London's West End and opens in Sydney in May, after an eight-month run in Melbourne - has done more to expose the absurdity of far-right militarism than modern "anti-fascist" comedians have ever done.

Alhadeff is right to state that the swastika is symbolic of the most barbaric crime in the history of mankind. But however horrific the symbol is, it does not mean we can never - in the right circumstances - laugh at it. By laughing at fascists, Nazis and their emblems, we defend ourselves against them. But by working ourselves into moral outrage over a 20-year-old prince donning an Afrika corps costume for a fancy dress party we are already one step along the road to the very totalitarian mindset we claim to be opposing.

As we near the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it's worth remembering that such unspeakable atrocities occurred there not because people had laughed at far-right extremists. They occurred because too many people, a decade earlier, had failed to. 

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First published in The Australian on January 18, 2004.

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About the Author

Neil Clark is a tutor in history and politics at Oxford Tutorial College in England.

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