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Jimmy Carr's Holocaust Joke Illustrates the Value of the First Amendment

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | February 8, 2022 |

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | February 8, 2022 |


As I wrote last week, no one in America seems to understand the First Amendment anymore. The people defending the likes of Dave Chappelle or Joe Rogan while screaming “cancel culture” often also cite the protections of the First Amendment. They fail to understand that the First Amendment is exactly what affords Joe Rogan the right to laugh at sexual assault or Dave Chappelle to make transphobic jokes. As long as a person is not inciting a riot of endangering public health, they can say anything they want without fear of government prosecution.

If the public has a problem with Joe Rogan or Dave Chappelle, they have to take it up with Spotify or Netflix. You don’t see Joe Biden weighing in on Chappelle or Rogan, or Jen Psaki contemplating legislation to regulate or ban transphobic jokes. Granted, the FCC does have regulatory authority over the public airwaves (network television, radio), but that’s because the government is in charge of issuing licenses to transmitters. But the government doesn’t have any regulatory power over streaming services or cable channels.

That’s why the First Amendment makes us different from, say, our friends over in the UK, even if the UK is more liberal than the United States in a lot of other ways. A recent controversy involving a stand-up comedian with a Netflix special is the perfect way to illustrate the contrast.

I am not that familiar with Jimmy Carr, who is popular — or at least very well known — in the UK. Our UK writers use a lot of obscenities to describe him, and Tori says that he’s the butt of a lot of jokes on those British Panel Shows. If you didn’t know anything else about him, the following joke, which he delivered on a recent Netflix stand-up special, should tell you what you need to know:

“When people talk about the Holocaust, they talk about the tragedy and horror of 6 million Jewish lives being lost to the Nazi war machine. But they never mention the thousands of Gypsies that were killed by the Nazis.

“No one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives.”

Yikes. That joke is f**ked up. Carr’s stand-up special was released a few months ago, but that particular joke just started making the rounds over in the UK, and there are a lot of people who are understandably upset, the GRT community chief among them. (Interestingly, this special also airs on Netflix in America, and no one has hardly said boo about it here, although that is probably because, unlike the UK, we have a fairly small Romani-American population).

How the UK has responded to that joke, however, illustrates our differences. There’s a lot of appropriate outrage in the UK from the expected groups — the Roma community, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Auschwitz Memorial, etc. — but while some of that outrage is directed at Netflix, it’s also directed at the government. These groups and others are asking the government to step in, and not only are government officials like Labour MP Nadia Whittome speaking out, but they are also threatening legislation.

The head of UK’s broadcast watchdog Ofcom — something similar to the equivalent of our FCC — wants to extend the reach of their organization to include streaming services so that Ofcom can essentially censor these kinds of jokes. The UK culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, is likewise suggesting the UK pass legislation to regulate jokes like that of Carr, and while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stopped short of that — saying this was a matter for Netflix — he has also threatened to take tougher “measures on social media and streaming platforms which don’t tackle harmful content on their platforms.”

In other words, the response in the UK to this controversy has been mostly governmental, while here in the United States we deal with these matters largely through consumer protests. There’s some irony to that in that the right hates “cancel culture” but loves capitalism, while many on the left dislike capitalism and yet use it as a means of protest.

Nevertheless, the First Amendment prevents us from calling upon the government to censor the likes of Joe Rogan or Dave Chapelle, but that is exactly how the UK is approaching it. In fact, Billy Welch, the spokesperson for the UK’s Roma population, is trying to get Carr prosecuted for “inciting racial hatred,” whereas in the United States, liberal organizations like the ACLU would fight tooth and nail to defend Carr’s right to hate speech (hate crimes are illegal in the United States, but there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment).

I might find Jimmy Carr’s joke abhorrent, but I would never expect — or want — the government to step in and censor him. That’s not the American way. If we have a problem with Jimmy Carr, we take it up with Netflix and not the White House because, for obvious reasons, we don’t want our government institutions making decisions about what we can or cannot say in public.

(It is not the subject of this piece, but it is also worth noting how hypocritical it is for the conservative UK government to condemn Jimmy Carr’s joke with one side of their mouth while using the other side of their mouth to propose laws detrimental to the GRT community.)