You may not have heard of Felix Kjellberg – in fact you almost certainly had not, at least until earlier this week – but don’t worry: your life’s rich tapestry will not have been in any way diminished by that gap in your cultural knowledge. Unless you are a teenager. If you’re a teenager you may well know him, if only under his nom-de-vlog of PewDiePie. In which case, you might be one of the astonishing 53 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and have notched up at least one, but probably many more than one, of the mind-blowing 14 BILLION views his videos have enjoyed on YouTube.
It’s a funny old world where most of us grown-ups haven’t heard of the guy who is literally – yes literally – the most subscribed user on YouTube IN THE WORLD, which is almost like being the most popular person in the whole world, except that right now he’s one of the most unpopular people in the whole world. In a very 21st century sort of irony, Felix’s moment of mainstream recognition came not because he has made all those people happy but because he got into trouble for that other most modern of offences – causing offence. In fact, PewDiePie simultaneously became a mainstream name and a global pariah in the space of 24 hours.
So who is PewDiePie, I hear you ask, and what has he done - apart from being a 27-year-old Swedish multi-millionaire who has adopted a fake name that nobody should be so childish as to adopt unless they’re a Looney Tunes cartoon character? Well, that’s a tough one. In the olden days (pre-internet) you got famous for mighty deeds, whether in the field of war, or science, or sport, or something noble or notable like that; or even fashion. Then there was a brief late-20th-century interlude when you could get famous for things like taking off your clothes (Jordan), going to parties (Paris Hilton), shagging footballers (too many to mention) and “being on the telly” (Kim Kardashian). But now there’s a new category.
Felix, as I am now going to call him because I feel embarrassed being a grown man typing “PewDiePie” and remembering where to put the capitals, is famous for something different. Initially, he became famous for filming himself playing computer games, commenting and making goofy sweary comments back at the camera while he did so, and posting the resulting “vlogs” on YouTube. Yes, that’s what your teenage children are watching in their bedrooms: a bloke doing exactly what they’re doing but making a fortune out of it: his current worth is estimated at nearly £50 million.
Anyway, this week his massive business empire received a series of body blows when his videos were dropped by Google and Disney – effectively blocking him from his paid platforms on YouTube and Disney-owned Maker Studios – because of an “amusing” video he posted of two (I think) Sri Lankan fellows larking about before unfurling a banner bearing the not-at-all-amusing message: “Death To All Jews.”
(WARNING – CLIP CONTAINS BAD LANGUAGE AND MAY CAUSE OFFENCE)
Sounds like an open-and-shut case, right? But nothing’s quite that simple, so instead of labelling Felix a Nazi without the benefit of a visit to The Hague, let’s be old-fashioned about this and examine the evidence.
His argument is that his clip was made to demonstrate – and satirise – the ridiculous things people will do on the internet for money, in particular on a website called Fiverr where people can advertise that they will do something – anything – for as little as $5. Felix thought he’d see just how far they would go, and came up with the most outrageous thing he could imagine, offering these two people $5 if they would hold up a sign saying “Death to all Jews”. Idiotically, they did, and Felix posted the resulting video on his platform, with himself visible onscreen at the same time, miming a “comedic” expression of shock.
So far so stupid, you might say. Proof perhaps that Felix is too dim to see the consequences of his actions but hardly conclusive proof that he’s a Jew-hating Nazi. On the basis of the rest of his videos, which share an imbecilic juvenility (complete with regular use of “gay” and “retard” as pejoratives, at least in his earlier “work”), this is pretty much in line with the sort of inane prank in which he specialises, which has included “joking” that he’s going to join ISIS.
I realise there are lots of counter-arguments here. There’s the argument that he somehow desensitises us to the full awfulness of the message by making us laugh at it, even though most of us (and he) are actually laughing at the awfulness of it. There’s another that he’s mocking the Sri Lankan fellows, who may or may not understand the awfulness of the message they are being paid a pittance to convey, though I wonder whether I would feel that if they weren’t larking about in “native” costume in front of what looks like a jungle backdrop but which may, for all I know, be a backlot at a Hollywood studio with outfits from the costume department. And then there’s the absolutist “PC police” argument that you can’t ever lark about at all with words like “Jew” (or, for that matter, “Nazi”), and that you are in danger of “normalising” anti-semitism and racial epithets by doing so.
Nevertheless, Felix later posted an explanation on Tumblr – I can’t say “apology” because he didn’t apologise - explaining that his intention was to satirise “how crazy the modern world is” and I can’t argue with that because the fallout has proved his point precisely. In his own words: “I picked something that seemed absurd to me — that people on Fiverr would say anything for 5 dollars”.
Perhaps mindful of the financial damage that might ensue, he added: “I think it’s important to say something and I want to make one thing clear: I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes. I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive. As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way."
Felix’s sort-of-apology has garnered thousands of ‘Likes’ but once the story reached the mainstream media that was not enough to save him from punishment because we live in an age where offending people is close to becoming a capital offence. I don’t know whether Felix hates Jews or not – I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, despite his suspiciously Aryan features - and I don’t really think his misguided prank merits the level of offence-taking it has so far achieved.
While he has indeed highlighted the stupidity of the people who will do anything for $5, he seems to me to have demonstrated equally, if not more, his own stupidity at not foreseeing that broadcasting the message “Death To All Jews” to an audience of millions is likely to lead to misunderstandings, anger, criticism, a massive public outcry in the media and the loss of both income and credibility, however hilarious he might have thought it would be.
This so-called controversy also has parallels with something that’s been going on in New York, where the actor-slash-performance artist Shia LaBeouf has been staging something called “He Will Not Divide Us” in response to Donald Trump’s election as president. Ironically, in view of its title, it has proved so divisive, at least to a moronic sub-section of humanity, that it has had to be shut down.
LaBeouf’s idea was to place a booth outside the Museum Of the Moving Image in Manhattan on the day of Trump’s inauguration, where people could record themselves saying “He will not divide us” for the entire four-year period of his presidency, as a constant reminder that New Yorkers would remain united in their opposition to him. At least that’s how I interpreted it and how he intended it. But he had not reckoned with the Neanderthal underclass of “white supremacists” who gatecrashed the event, took their tops off to reveal all sorts of unsavoury Nazi-themed tattoos, and gambolled about drinking milk in front of the camera. Yes, you read that right: milk has been adopted by these hateful halfwits as a symbol of white supremacy, for some reason (presumably because, like them, it is white and, er, “pure” or something. Help me out, I’m struggling).
Here they are – and, trust me, you are completely mad if you think that by posting this link of these idiots I am in any way endorsing their stupid, ill-informed behaviour; lest you still be in any doubt: I am not. And I don’t have a YouTube tunnel to be taken down.
I strongly suspect that Felix would not endorse them either, but perhaps he can concoct some sort of hilarious prank that would involve some Jews gatecrashing their next gathering, unfurling a banner about how much they hate the Nazis. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he should just have a good long look at himself and think before he posts something stupid the next time.