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Wreath Lectures

Beyond Dapper Laughs: Comedic Realism & The Failure Of Liberalism
Joe Kennedy , December 17th, 2014 13:54

In the latest Quietus Wreath Lecture looking back at 2014, Joe Kennedy looks at how comedy is failing to deliver a decent response to the current British malaise

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Like many, perhaps most or even all, of you, I won't look back on 2014, at least in terms of what can be ascribed to the public sphere, fondly. I mean, it's been worse than 2013 which was, in turn, worse than 2012. Internationally? As awful as can be barring a full-scale, multi-actor armed conflict, and we've come as close to this as in any year since the 1980s. Domestically? The surge of the rugby-club right against a backdrop of apparently interminable austerity, the former to some extent a consequence of a campaign of misinformation regarding the causes of the latter. Culturally? Ed Sheeran, and books with titles constructed along the formula The [adjective] [uncountable noun] of [forename] [surname] - The Inexplicable Hegemony of Ed Sheeran, to kill a couple of birds with one stone.

A thread linking the cultural and the domestic-political, and perhaps even the international, can be found in the sort-of-unlikely setting of the British comedy scene. Since alternative comedians wrested their autonomy from noxious Manningesque blue humour and the schematised laughs of light entertainment in the 1980s, then wisecracked their way to dominance in the 1990s, the trajectory has been towards the construction of a broad consensus for a new, liberal-leftish comic mechanics. Said consensus now fully established, liberal comedy has ebbed in political energy and relevance in inverse proportion to its increasing closeness to ubiquity. To examine this phenomenon in detail tells us not only about the moribundity of a particular cultural field, but of the intellectual and conceptual bankruptcy of political liberalism and the near left in regard to the rightwards turn.

The prevailing register of British comedy is also the prevailing voice of British liberalism, and it blends three tones. The first of these is ruefulness – why isn't everything like it could be? The second is a spuriously enlightened superiority – things could be a certain way if only more people could see the truths I see. Finally, we find a wearied cynicism – if things are not the way they could and should be, why shouldn't I meet the lower common denominators? You could triangulate the position of most modern British comedians somewhere between these three points; for someone perfectly equidistant from each, the representative voice of the nation's tickled ribs, just think of Robert Webb.

I invoke Webb's name here as he was a participant in one of British comedy's three main collisions with politics in 2014. First, however, I want to deal with two more obvious instances, the more notable of which involves a rare outlier from the dominant strand of complacent liberalese. That would be Dapper Laughs, the South London lad-com act deprived of a second series on ITV when people pointed out, not particularly surprisingly, that strident and unrepentant misogyny is misogynistic. It took little time once the furore began for the mainstays of post-alternative mainstream comedy – a formulation less awkward than it looks on paper – to take their turns shellacking Daniel O'Reilly. All well and good, perhaps, and it's undoubtedly, if depressingly, necessary for this calling out of #bantz-level sexism to happen if we're going to reach the radical change in attitudes that we're still crying out for.

It was the case, however, that O'Reilly had a double role in this drama. He was, undoubtedly, in a position where it would have been wrong not to make a noise about the suppurating grimness of his creation. However, he was also an obvious target of the sort the comedy in-crowd require in order to make it look as if what they do retains political bite. I'm sure many of the signatories to the letter which denounced O'Reilly were heartfelt in their condemnation, but there's also a certain lack of risk in decrying the pantomime sexism which characterised On The Pull. On a pretty frequent basis, I can turn on Have I Got News For You or Mock The Week and catch someone on the inside track of comedy, their political 'credentials' reasonably reliable, slipping into casual sexism dressed up as bonhomie, badinage or even, shudder-inducingly, irony.

The point here may well be that modern mainstream comedy, in the odd position of having inherited both the mass audience of the after-dinner dinosaurs and the sensibilities of 80s alternative comedy, recognises its sellability lies in its being able to position itself as progressive without committing to any form of progression beyond bien-pensant liberalism. It's not a new phenomenon: the early years of the Millennium were a gift for comedians who effectively made a living out of telling us that George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were bad men (and who yet have very little to say over Barack Obama's ongoing drone wars). As a consequence, comedy has moved more and more towards a facile progressivism whereby a participant on one of the ever-proliferating panel shows can make a comment about the appearance of a Tory politician (who will invariably be Eric Pickles or Boris Johnson) and frame it as finessed satire.

That the voice carrying the most resonance in comedy is a banal one was identified, albeit for reasons very different from mine, by Andrew Lawrence, who in October dismissed "back-slapping panel shows like Mock The Week". Had Lawrence not then proceeded to start swiping away at "ethnic comedians and women", the nuggets of accuracy in his diatribe might have come into sharper relief. In pointing out that too many comedians are 'supercilious' and 'moralising' – and there is an essential difference between easy morality and complicated politics here – a good point was made. Once again, the good point was in the service of a dumb one, but one might repurpose the criticism of comics making hay in Nigel Farage's beery sunshine to say that laughing smugly at UKIP is clearly not making them go away. The conversion of serious political issues into moral-comedic capital which can land you a seat on The Apprentice: You're Fired – tip to all comedians who aspire to this: Nick, Karen, and even the strangely Pinterian Lord Sugar are all funnier than you – does offer the liberal classes a way out of really thinking about what's happening in Britain, or their potential complicity in it. Where political comedy once had the capacity to force issues, it now seems more like a paradoxical form of disengaging from them.

So, where did the comedians engage head-on with politics, other than in rehearsed and glib jibes at Farage or at bankers? If they did so en masse in a way which wasn't reactive – by which I mean the response to Dapper Laughs or to Lawrence – the issue about which they put their heads above the parapet most noticeably was over Scotland. Now, I'd probably best announce my own sympathies here: I'm not writing from a neutral position, should such a thing exist. I was pretty vocal about my hopes for a 'Yes' vote and about the machinations of the establishment in bringing about the opposite. Nevertheless, I'd like to think that there's something in the number of comedians who signed up to historian Dan Snow's mawkish, barely-not-imperialistic lovebombing of Scotland that is telling in a way which goes beyond the debate surrounding the referendum. Snow's letter was characteristic of much of modern British politics in that it came from a place of deep resistance to change while presenting itself as simply rational, objective and even progressive wisdom. Don't go Scotland! We're so much better together! We've got so much in common and we did all that stuff together which, while not entirely ethically justifiable, we've at least expressed a mumble of contrition for! And you'll be COLD on your own! The signatories were, as one might expect, drawn from the world of goodly common sense, people who are not-old-fashioned-but…, while not being outrageous bigots of the kind that would discredit the project. In fact, it was an exercise in consensuality: light-ent mainstays (Cilla Black), W.H.Smiths Smart Thinkers (Alain de Botton), incipient professional national treasures (Olivia Colman), unimpeachable sportspeople (Tom Daley) and high-profile scientists (Steven Hawking). Just by reading down the list of names, it was clear that it was an assemblage of people who don't want to rock the boat, a boat which just happens to be sailing in the direction they want it to.

Scottish independence from a political union created and consolidated at the very height of the European Enlightenment has been a cause which has suffered from attendant associations of irrationality. It was thus very easy for Snow et al to present their agenda as an intrinsically sensible one. For the comedians involved – Webb, his Peep Show partner David Mitchell, Eddie Izzard and Steve Coogan to name but a handful – there was perhaps a bit more at stake in associating with such a 'rational' cause. As I've argued above, so much of modern comedy gets its structure from a withering sense of most people not being able to take a rational approach to the world's problems: if only the man in the street could just see. Comedy nowadays presents itself as the unduped, that which is not taken in and is capable of seeing through pretence. Such an attitude was there in Webb's riposte to Russell Brand's suggestion that the effectively disenfranchised should make themselves into the literally disenfranchised: "with the greatest of respect, please read some fucking Orwell". It's there in every Bush and Cameron joke. It's there in Josie Long's faux-naïve, and thus somehow also actually naïve, cartoons for the Guardian G2 on a Saturday, which pulse with a moralising idea that it's all simply a case of how we need to be kinder to one another: well, obviously.

In this sense, it acts as an affirmation that how things are, on the macro level, is somehow the way things should be: we should work at the level of correcting the flaws within the system, its instances of corruption, rather than the system itself. Read some fucking Orwell, with the greatest of respect. Vote Labour or Democrat. Be nicer. It makes of politics a series of individual moral choices and therefore denies that the very framework of choice is defined by ideology. But laughter is, surely, capable of so much more than this. At its best, it can be a turbulent force which punches a hole in the structuring of things and exposes the very contingency of the rational. Seeing comedy defer to Enlightenment shibboleths of pragmatism, realism and achievability – making the errant UKIP voter see the error of their ways – is not just frustrating, it's sad.

One of the best things published on this site in 2014 was Taylor Parkes' essay on how Monty Python has been misread as "something unthreatening and whimsical, a posh boys' lark, an "icon of Britishness", a zany figleaf for the humourless and the deeply conventional" rather than "a disturbing experience, disquieting, disordered, disruptive... something close to Dada." Comedy can be a radical reordering of sense which defamiliarises what we take to be the 'rational' and offers it up as a complex politicised construct. Surrealism managed to show us that it was the conditions of the sensible which were flawed, as opposed to specific acts being nonsensical or irrational, as did the films of Buster Keaton and the writings of Beckett and Kafka. Comedians who work with this legacy of destabilisation in mind continue to work: with Stewart Lee, for example, it's rarely the content of the show that elicits laughter but in the intense layering, backtracking, waylaying, exaggerating and collapsing of the material, and this laughter is, in Brecht's sense, non-cathartic politically charged. By contrast, so much of what passes for left-leaning comedy in 2014 allows for a communion of amusement which allows for a purging of the motivated and necessary anger which could contribute towards a true challenging of the reality conditions of the moment.

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Dec 17, 2014 5:52pm

That's just excellent.

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El Din
Dec 17, 2014 7:11pm

Top stuff.

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Dec 17, 2014 11:26pm

He knows!

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Dec 18, 2014 3:25am

Ideology is at its most powerful when it is pervasive yet hidden at the same time.
Most of the post-alternative mainstream comedians mentioned in the article owe their fame and careers to the BBC. That says it all really, especially in the context of the Scottish referendum.

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Not Robert Webb
Dec 18, 2014 10:23am

Oh, I don't know Quietus. There's a point to be made about the narrowing of political discourse, especially in the world of comedy, but might a Wikipedia's worth of namedrops and loose assemblage of cheap shots be the best means of doing so? I've read this through several times yet remain unclear as to why Mr Webb is seen as the ne plus ultra of stodgy liberalism, nor why Brand's advocating of disenfranchisement and reading-some-fucking-David-Icke might be the superior option. It all seems rather contrarian, and I say this as someone who would broadly agree with the author's sentiments if they weren't so unpolished, sneering and crude.

Later, the author cleverly undermines the 'no' vote by reminding us of the most cringe-inducing celebrity signatories, but the same tactic could easily have been applied to the 'yes' tendency, which came ready loaded with national treasures (Billy Connolly), unimpeachable sportspeople (Andy Murray) and noted voices of reason and decency (Frankie Boyle). What value here besides a spot of nose-thumbing at the cheap tastes of the general populace, their car stereos empty of noise rock and yelping?

And yes, let's decry pervasive sexism in the mainstream media, by all means, but perhaps let's not also do so while nobbling Olivia Colman for the primary sin of being popular, nor Josie Long for embodying some dimly-articulated Mobius strip of naivety.

I'm sure I'll be picked apart in the comments section or, worse, ignored, but there's a tone to all this that feels indefensibly smug: the final point positing the reflexive, self-cannibalising tendency of modern stand-up as some kind of hyper-evolved descendent of true surrealism says it all. Indeed, in that final paragraph the author evokes campus faves Kafka, Beckett and Brecht. What's our take away supposed to be? Populism is empty, liberalism fails and waiting on the far side of some longed-for paradigm shift? The white 20th century avant garde, précis and essays attached. Well, bring me my black roll-neck, spark up a gitanes and for God's sake, keep the hoi polloi off the quad lawns.

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Joe K
Dec 18, 2014 10:43am

In reply to Not Robert Webb:

Just so you know, the first place Waiting for Godot was actually appreciated in any meaningful way was not on campus, but in a prison. Likewise with Kafka and Brecht: their influence has gone far, far beyond your putative ivory tower. These are hardly elitist choices: most of the really good comedy over the last thirty years has those authors in their DNA (Father Ted - Beckett and Brecht; Peep Show, which I actually like a lot despite my reservations about Webb - Brecht and Kafka. There'd be a decent case for saying that Beckett actually invented sitcom).

The notion that this piece is somehow sexist for making a vaguely sniffy allusion to the ubiquitous Colman and a pretty accurate one about the empty politics of Josie Long's cartoons is a pretty desperate one.

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Dan John
Dec 18, 2014 11:03am

'Proper' lefty moaning about the centre-left not being radical enough....*sigh. Also, Independence without your own currency isn't independence. Yeah, let's go "Independent" then join a currency "Union", like that's not completely contradictory...

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Not Robert Webb
Dec 18, 2014 11:21am

In reply to Joe K:

Thanks for the prompt (and reasoned) response, Joe. The Quietus is always an even-handed platform. Looking back, my first post is several shades more splenetic than I might have intended. Apols. The internet has that effect. Let me respond to your two objections:

1) With Josie Long, I suppose it's more that I'm sick of the regularity with which she's put down. To me, hers is a sharp and individual voice and where others merely pay heed to their objections, she acts on them: she has toured overlooked areas hard-hit by cuts, playing in public spaces for free, and Arts Emergency, the charity she co-founded, does great work and reflects a grass-roots focus which goes beyond the naive and namby-pamby. Perhaps this isn't enough for you - I'm not sure of your stance - but I feel she deserves greater respect, both as a comic and activist.

2) The Beckett / Kafka point is a harder one to articulate. I don't see them as being locked away - Kafka, in particular, has entered the public lexicon. And you are, of course, right: the English sitcom, in particular, owes much to Godot, though the revisionist prioritising of Beckett's humour does him a dis-service, skirting nervously around a deep well of blackness.

I suppose really it's more that I perceived a dichotomy emerging in your piece, between what you seem to see as 'public taste' and what you posit as the superior option, the latter tending towards the kind of wilful miserablism which so often takes hold in the young and recently educated, not helped by the curriculum friendliness of your elevated choices. Perhaps I'm being an arse. Perhaps I actually am one.

At root this is the 'Sullivan's Travels' debate, I suppose: my perception is that popular art has real value, even if it doesn't plum the depths of despair. A bit of context - I'm an English teacher and I notice, in particular, that my students often mistake seriousness for importance. Cleese said something very similar once.

I'm not really sure how to end this. I'm sorry for the snarkiness. It comes, as I said, from feeling that we're leaning towards the same thing but I suppose it's a matter of taste: in Marxist terms, I'm of the Groucho-ist tendency. I could happily sit through more Pinter, but Ken Campbell's much more my estuary-inflected menacing clown of choice.

Shake on it?

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Joe K
Dec 18, 2014 11:33am

In reply to Not Robert Webb:

Shake, and thanks for your reply.

For my part, a little context - I'm also an English teacher (well, lecturer) and not as 'recently educated' as you perhaps think. I'd be really disappointed if people thought I was doing down popular art in general here, as I'm, in the main, a huge advocate of good ideas disseminated demotically (currently writing a book about football as popular art, for what it's worth). I think you can see how a lot of comedy does this - I've been watching reruns of Rab C. Nesbitt lately and it's a) socially much sharper (and more sympathetic) than contemporary sitcom and b) clearly informed by the philosophy it seems to be satirising.

I'm certainly not a fan of seriousness for it's own sake, and I think there's laughter (even if it's grim laughter) in most of my favourites. I don't think you can separate the bleakness from the humour in either Beckett or Kafka. I once fell off a seat on a train laughing at Watt, but that's not to do down the weight of the ideas therein.

My final point would be that I think there's a lot more seriousness/ depth in Monty Python than in much of the worthy stuff that seems to get stuck on the A-Level and GCSE curriculums now (I mean, Ian McEwan!) One of the things I've historically found myself having to do as a lecturer is tell my students that laughter is a valid critical response. I think that we may well be reading from the same page here, all things considered.

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Dec 18, 2014 11:45am

The genteel civility of the debate above is hilarious and a real treat. Hats off to Not Robert Webb!

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Dec 18, 2014 11:46am

And Joe K!

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Dec 18, 2014 12:30pm

This is spot on. The liberal left in comedy are now more conservative, in another more restrictive way, than the old "manningesque" crowd and group of comedians of decades gone by

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Dec 18, 2014 5:05pm


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Dec 19, 2014 11:29am

In reply to Joe K:

You're right about Rab C.Nesbitt, a much-misunderstood and very funny show. I know that even Gregor Fisher admits that maybe it wasn't the most flattering image of certain parts of Glasgow, but it was very much on the side of the disenfranchised, it's real targets were generally higher up the social scale. One of the highlights of the Scottish independence campaign was Elaine C.Smith aka Mary taking such a prominent role in lobbying the yes vote. As for me, I still find myself wanting to say 'I'm offski' when I leave work 20 hers later.

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Dec 21, 2014 7:24pm

I can't help but feel that a major problem with the, er, national conversation these days is that Britain seems to have accpted the US idea that liberal and left mean basically the same thing.

A huge amount of the liberalism in our society is that of the liberal right.

Dan John may disagree, but I'd say I'm not a 'proper lefty' - I'm 41, and so grew up in a time where being centre left meant being a woolly social democrat - and that's where I've stayed, pretty much. So I guess I'm saying many who are identified as centre left, or even think of themselves as centre left, simply aren't. They don't hate gays or Blacks, hate unions, hate poverty and hate paying taxes, hate aspiration for everyone and upwards social mobility for everyone, love aspiration and upwards social mobility for them and theirs.

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Dec 24, 2014 12:29am

In reply to Joe K:

Demotically is such a nifty word isn't it? So much closer to the point than common or simple, even popular! No, those words commit one far too much. Demotically will do just fine. I can only hope that if everyone starts to explain their ideas more demotically, some of them might actually filter down and disseminate among the riff-raff who are especially starved of "good" ideas.

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Stewart Smith
Jan 5, 2015 12:01pm

In reply to Dan John:

Hate to have to go over this tired point for the umpteenth time, but by that logic, then every Eurozone country is not independent. Independence is not some fixed state and is contingent on the geo-politics of its era. This is not the 19th century and no country is truly independent, which is fine. But they still consider themselves independent in that they have their own governments, sense of imagined community etc. I should add that not all Yes voters were for a currency union, although most recognised it was at the very least a sensible transitional measure. By shutting down the possibility of a union and refusing to negotiate a sensible deal in good faith, Osborne was acting very much the colonialist bully.

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Stewart Smith
Jan 5, 2015 12:18pm

In reply to Stewart Smith:

Moving on from that, this is an excellent piece which shows how toothless and glib British comedy has been. It's interesting you bring up Rab C Nesbitt. It is sometimes criticised as poverty porn, but as you say, it's sympathetic to its characters and aims its real fire towards the Scottish and British establishments. A good example would be the episode set during Glasgow's year as European Capital of Culture in 1990, which brings the kind of critique writers like James Kelman and Alasdair Gray were making at the time to a mainstream context - i.e. while the funding of culture was broadly positive, questions had to be asked about whether that funding was reaching the city's poorer communities. The revived Rab C has also been pretty much the only BBC comedy to attack austerity outright, with Rab and Jamesy becoming Robin Hood figures giving money to the poor, only to be thwarted by unsympathetic police and courts.

As a Scot and a Yes voter, I found the Scottish Referendum really exciting in terms of comedy (btw Billie Connolly was not a Yes - he publicly declared that he would not say who he was voting for). Very little of this was on the TV, but online. Limmy's vines and tweets were fantastic as ever, but it was the Youtube videos by people like Lady Alba (Scotland's relationship with Westminster as a Bad Romance) which showed real wit and invention from non-professionals. Really good natured too - very different to the smirk of Oxbridge pseudo-satire.

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Joe K
Jan 5, 2015 2:06pm

In reply to Stewart Smith:

Cheers, Stewart. Yes, I think people who dismiss/ dismissed Rab C as 'poverty porn' can never have seen the show. It was always, to my mind, out-and-out left-wing, as opposed to 'progressive'. The City of Culture episode is brilliant; it deserves to be up there with the dining club episode - note *not* 'The Germans'! - of Fawlty Towers and 'A Song for Europe' from Father Ted in the list of great British and Irish sitcom episodes. The Loch Lomond episode from the same series is also outstanding.

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Jan 27, 2015 12:42am

It was surprising - in the best of ways - to read here an article that points out the ideological function performed by the great Enlightenment discourses (the function of reiterating bourgeois reality, of course). Liberal comedy is no doubt acting in this performance; I am however wondering if comedy inspired by Kafka and Beckett might be able today to disturb it, rather than being enrolled in it for the delight of the cynic consumer. Comedy can certainly have reality-disruptive potential; I'm not quite sure what form a comedy that punctures 'common sense' might take nowadays ...

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Mar 9, 2015 2:11pm

"Such an attitude was there in Webb's riposte to Russell Brand's suggestion that the effectively disenfranchised should make themselves into the literally disenfranchised: "with the greatest of respect, please read some fucking Orwell". It's there in every Bush and Cameron joke. It's there in Josie Long's faux-naïve, and thus somehow also actually naïve, cartoons for the Guardian G2 on a Saturday, which pulse with a moralising idea that it's all simply a case of how we need to be kinder to one another: well, obviously."

I think the bit of Orwell that Joe needs to read is the essay on Dickens. He might be surprised at some of the ideas in it:

But then there is also "Looking Back On The Spanish War" (1943):

"Behind all the ballyhoo that is talked about ‘godless’ Russia and the ‘materialism’ of the working class lies the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. Ditto, though it contains a partial truth, with all the talk about the worthlessness of social reconstruction not accompanied by a ‘change of heart’. The pious ones, from the Pope to the yogis of California, are great on the’ change of heart’, much more reassuring from their point of view than a change in the economic system."

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Joe K
Mar 12, 2015 5:27pm

In reply to Casmilus:

I've read Orwell's essay on Dickens a number of times. That idea from 'Looking Back on the Spanish War' is useful in this context, obviously, but Orwell himself - as Raymond Williams points out - is consistently *inconsistent* with what he's arguing here, and frequently falls into the trap he identifies himself (in Wigan Pier, for example, and at many points subsequently, he equates class with preference and behaviour, rather than specific material circumstance). More to the point, what Webb meant with the 'Fucking Orwell' remark was quite clear - it was the version of orwell which reduces his writing to an airy warning against generic totalitarianism. In fact, it makes me think Webb should probably read some Fucking Orwell himself.

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