When is a joke not a joke? This isn’t the start of a bad joke by the way, but a serious question. When it has to be explained? When it offends? When it backfires?
John McDonnell may be asking himself the same question today, as are members of his own party. As he held aloft the ‘offensive’ Little Red Book after Osborne’s Autumn Statement, it became painfully clear that the wisecrack was, for a moment, lost on his own frontbench.
It wasn’t entirely lost on the government either, but that didn’t stop them revelling in this mass media faux pas. Cue howls of delight and good ol’ fashioned booyahs. Cue the “Bring back Balls!” demand and Bercow’s bellows for order.
And so it went on… Cue inevitable Twitterstorm and cue #MaoGate. Cue a handful of Labour members cancelling their memberships in disgust. Cue Labour MPs lining up to take a few shots. Cue the inevitable mock outrage and indignation.
Have spoken to a fair few Labour MPs post #maogate. Miserable doesn’t do it justice.
— Kevin Schofield (@PolhomeEditor) November 25, 2015
A broken barometer could have predicted this nuclear reaction with greater accuracy. What in the name of Mammon possessed the man?
Will this self-thrown banana skin be his last? Will his fall be so dramatic that it will make the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue look like a convivial game of Ker-Plunk? Unlikely. I’d even go as far to say that this was a clever move.
In time, the mechanics and details of the joke will be lost; Watson’s jaw drop, the ‘personal signed copy’ quip, the Twitter storm. Social media has already moved on to #BlackFriday. The dust will soon settle on the Little Red Book jacket, once the right-wing press and other tabloids have pumped it out of their system in glee. And pump it out they did.
Thursday’s Daily Mail on #MaoGate Red Alert! Mao’s in the House #tomorrowspaperstoday #bbcpapers #spendingreview pic.twitter.com/ydtVkOsgJs — Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) November 25, 2015
But The Independent and the BBC played it straight, acknowledging that McDonnell was making a joke at the government’s expense, by calling them economic illiterates.
Chinese dissidents also agreed McDonnell had a point. And at the other end of the political spectrum, Neo-Maoists shrugged their shoulders, saying: “I don’t see the big deal. Chinese leaders are always quoting the excellent sayings or mottos of other countries’ leaders. Learning modestly from others is a normal attitude to take.”
Hype and hypocrisy
This brings us neatly to the point. Who says it’s wrong to quote from a book written by a dictator? Who is it that deems some books too offensive to own, hold, read or share?
Isn’t this the thinking that led to Hitler’s 1933 book burning night and a totalitarian state?
Isn’t the protection of our freedom of speech the reason Cameron and others took to the streets after the Charlie Hebdo attacks?
Are we to wallow in so much mock outrage that we lose sight of our own democratic principles and values?
“To those defending Mcdonnell Mao quote. Mao killed 60 million. Imagine reaction if Cameron quoted Hitler.” #MaoGate
— James McHale (@JamesMcHaleUK) November 25, 2015
“Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.”
Mass media: Where no one hears you scream
When you choose to stand firm against a hostile media, as Corbyn and McDonnell clearly have, you have three options.
- Sail the ship steady, straight and silently in the hope you’ll fly under their radar
2. U-turn and kiss press ass and find creative ways to buy their loyalty
3. Hold true to your values and give them what they want – a bloody good headline
Option 3 activated. Make no mistake – McDonnell snatched headlines and attention. Result: More than 200 articles written in less than 24 hours.
This is an Age of Attention – Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Seeking Disorder. If you cannot seek and gain media attention, then you are a nobody, not only in the eyes of the media but the wider public. That spells political and celebrity Doom with a capital D.
Unwittingly or not, McDonnell’s stunt has propelled him to new heights; not by chewing on the hind legs of a cockroach or strutting like a cock about Sugar Towers, but by shedding light on a serious issue. As all good politicians should.
Whether the media report his point honestly or not is missing the point. In this day and age there really is no such thing as bad publicity.
Opportunity knocks, not Game for a Laugh
In September, when McDonnell took up post, Osborne was courting the Chinese in a bid to gain their cash. He came away with a £2bn deal for them to build us a nuclear power station.
Clearly, the French weren’t a good enough option at that time, even though they’re the world’s experts on nuclear development.
So, with Osborne doing deals for the sake of the shaky Chinese and British economies, and Cameron getting cosy with the brutal Saudi regime for the sake of arms deals, you’ve got to question the company the government currently keeps.
The Tory government is very content to do a lot of business with dictators and human rights abusers.
So, are we really content to slam McDonnell for quoting a dead Chinese dictator, whilst Osborne shakes the fleshy hands of Mao’s living heirs?
Are the Tories truly content to be complicit in making some cash off the broken backs, torn limbs and short lives of thousands of Chinese workers?
Are they happy to sell off our assets and infrastructure contracts to the highest paying regime?
Are they truly content to bolster the brutality of a regime that has helped bring chaos, not resolution, to the Middle East?
It would appear so.
McDonnell has thrown Cameron’s Communist jibes back in his face with both hands. How? Well, when the last cringing toe is uncurled, and the chit-chat once again fills the uncomfortable silence, no one dares to carry on the joke. Ever.
So, when is a joke not a joke?
When it unpicks hype and calls out hypocrisy. When it’s a matter of life and death.
It’s what you call Home Truth.