Why has Jonathan Pie gone from ranting about real problems to being angry at insignificant bullshit?

I am yet to meet a journalist who doesn’t love the film Network. The 1976 satire is notorious for an iconic scene in which despondent news anchor Howard Beale launches into an impassioned plea for anger. As Beale bellows “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore”, we find out that his angry man routine has secured him his own TV show – he’s not an anchor anymore, he is “the mad prophet of the airwaves.

Jonathan Pie is a typically British version of Howard Beale. He is a character cast in populist anger to speak truth to power, and to do it through a shallow veneer of respectability. His early videos commit fully to this technique, throwing in comments to cameramen and references to “the weather” that hide the reality of what’s happening here. Seconds after announcing his damned assignment to hunt out vox-pops, the professional façade drops and he’s discussing “Jeremy Corbyn sticking his willy in a woman.

The videos are perfect for the social media age. They’re short, sharp and blend in with actual news coverage being shared. Pie is at his most effective and engaging before you realise he’s a character, and in those first few moments of your first video there is a deep catharsis in “hearing what they really think.” There is a sense of broken taboo in having this shouty, sweary, often obscene figure reach you under the guise of newsdesk respectability, and breaking that taboo draws you in. You are his co-conspirator, by engaging you too are “not gonna take this anymore.

And a lot of his videos are well targeted for his British audience. “Just Another School Shooting” echoes the helplessness Brits find in watching the endless string of massacres in the USA; “Brexit: Don’t Fucking Ask Me” condenses and captures two years of bemused sighs; and “Pie Reads the Daily Mail” takes several, admittedly predictable, swings at the Left’s favourite punching bag.

But the reliance on both the character and the set up speaks volumes about the problem with Pie: he’s not really that funny. I admit this might be a taste issue, but outside of that first taboo-breaking “fuck”, you realise that Pie substitutes anger for delivery and swear words for jokes. In researching this piece I’ve been watching his clips on YouTube, and outside of their original context it becomes apparent how similar his videos actually are.

The joke might seem to be on the media but, like in Network, the joke is really on the audience. Whilst we might sneer at the business that enabled and monetised Howard Beale’s rants, Beale’s rants find an audience. The film begins with his threat to commit suicide dragging in a gawking public and ends with his assassination for “low ratings.” You, the audience, by enabling and rewarding that business, are complicit in Beale’s suffering.

But Jonathan Pie isn’t Howard Beale, Jonathan Pie is a character created by Tom Walker. Beale is, within the film, a newscaster pushed too far and dragged through hell by a willing public. Pie is someone’s character, a self-promoting figure aimed at an audience that Network had condemned. He is Howard Beale, not as tragic-comedy, but as profiteer.

Insignificant Bullshit

And that profiteering is what brings me to the reason for writing this article, Pie’s latest video “Oppression Obsession.” The video is Pie’s latest takedown of “Identity Politics,” and it inadvertently epitomises how empty that concept truly is. In a 7-minute video, twice the length of Pie’s normal routines, Pie rages about a woman’s name being removed from an award, rainbows on coffee cups, and eggs in salad emojis. Pie castigates the left for “actively seeking out prejudice” instead of simply “reacting to” it.

My generation has never really had to fight for much” Pie insists, before acknowledging “gay rights have come a long way in my life time.” He castigates Vogue magazine for saying “tackling women’s issues today is harder than women’s battle for the vote” without actually realising that the article says no such thing, it talks about how breaking down “people’s inner stereotype of women” is harder than fighting for the vote. Whilst this may seem semantic, changing that stereotype was a huge part of winning the vote, and so the claim is far less woolly than Pie’s strawman.

And the video is full of these strawmen. “Wearing a Louis Vutton dress is not the same as jumping in front of a race horse” he bellows, attacking the views of no-one but the feminists who live in his head. “What vegan is triggered by an egg in a salad emoji?” He asks, cueing his audience to giggle at those silly vegans. “A white girl singing along to Kendrick Lamar doesn’t make her a racist, let’s not pretend it does” is another great win over…erm…no-one.

In other videos there’s this same tendency to strawmen and exaggeration that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Spiked column. “While some universities are banning newspapers they don’t like, I’ve decided to read them”; “If I call someone love and they interpret it as sexist then that’s a hate crime”; “Find me one neo-nazi who is using that video as a recruitment clip” – all deliberately misunderstand people’s issues because he wants you to be angry, because angry people share the videos.

These “dunks” on identity politics wouldn’t feel out of place in any number of YouTube videos castigating the evil “SJWs” for being triggered, but they’re not. They’re scattered about in a self-avowed left-wing comedian’s video on a channel which came to notoriety castigating Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May. So, why are they there?

First, it’s reasonable to assume that the creator of Pie might just hold these beliefs and that’s certainly possible. In Tom Walker’s interview with Owen Jones, Walker castigates Identity Politics for shutting down debate outside of the Pie character, but in doing so reveals his own limitations.

Whilst discussing the Australian same sex marriage referendum Jones asks Walker, “Would you have supported a referendum on interracial marriage?”. “You’ve stumped me on that, I’m just too naïve I can’t imagine not allowing that.”, Walker replied, which is the fundamental problem with the character of Jonathan Pie – Walker’s own naivety. In response to a list of examples of everyday sexism Walker says, “It’s difficult for me to accept they we live in an inherently misogynistic, racist or homophobic society […] I have never judged someone by their race, their gender or their sexuality.

Walker is too naïve to examine society beyond his own judgments, he does not engage with Jones’ list because he isn’t thinking sociologically, he’s thinking personally. By changing the discussion from the societal to the individual, Walker is the one shutting down the debate. Supposedly we cannot talk about the misogyny inherent in society because he isn’t a misogynist, and this raises significant questions about those people he castigates for calling others racist.

Walker also objects to being accused of having straight white male privilege because it does not engage with his argument. This is a fair criticism of their debating style, but in an interview in which he admits his own naivety, he fails to make the final leap that whilst he cannot imagine not allowing interracial marriage, most people of colour could. When people attack his lack of perspective, he perceives that not as a criticism of his lack of understanding, but as telling him that he isn’t allowed to engage simply because of who he is.

And this is the crux of the issue of “what happened to Jonathan Pie.” Walker is naïve.  

The Jonathan Pie character is a surface level satire of the news through a very specific lens that does not understand the world outside of his own viewpoint, and sees any pushback against that as somehow shutting down debate. His sweary persona hides a carefully written script that still never really manages more than “isn’t it ridiculous” as an argument. Of course, his targets would shift over time. They find an audience, wherever it may be. When everything is ridiculous you cannot begin to understand that something outside of your reference frame may not be as bizarre as it seems.

Pride coffee cups; eggs in salad emojis; names on trophies – all of it doesn’t matter to Pie – but he’s still, for some reason, furious about them. We still have a double length extravaganza of sound and fury that signifies nothing. We still have the empty, hollow rage that never loses intensity regardless of topic.

Howard Beale was at least angry about real things: “It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter.

Conversely, from having burst on the scene ranting about true injustices, Pie is now ranting with equal anger about politicising dumplings.

Because, whilst Walker’s politics may be naïve, his understanding of social media isn’t. There are shares in SJWs, and Walker is gleefully following the trend. There has always been a market for the white man willing to say political correctness has gone mad, and if Clarkson is now on Amazon Prime then why shouldn’t Pie cash in?

Which returns me to Network, because Beale understands Pie better than I do – “I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman […] All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad.” Walker might be more engaged than his character, but Pie’s message is simple: don’t worry about how to change things, you’ve just got to get mad.

Be angry at anything that pricks the edge of your comfortable world. It might be politics, it might be gun massacres, it might be the media but be angry at it. And if the thing that makes you mad is the implication that you might not necessarily have a universal understanding because of who you are… get angry at that too.

Pie’s videos don’t offer a solution; they don’t tell you how to engage to make a difference; they don’t change things, they are just about getting angry. And anger doesn’t have a political preference.

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