Jordan Shanks is not your average lefty. This unusual Australian YouTuber, who goes by the name of FriendlyJordies, disdains such labels but has steadily amassed an audience of millennials and zoomers with a confrontational, if unconventional, brand of progressive politics. The comedian, whose videos have been viewed 96 million times, has 426,000 subscribers. What do they come for? Mostly caustic commentaries on trash telly and cynical skits about the coarser aspects of Aussie life, but they stay for his dissections of the political scene, delivered with belligerent ire and eye-gouging humour.
Shanks isn’t auditioning for a gig on the ABC. He doesn’t pretend to be objective; he is viciously, gleefully unbalanced. The political left’s answer to Nelson Muntz, he stops pummelling his victims only long enough to croak out a gloating ‘ha ha’. Those victims are many and varied but fall into two main categories: right-of-centre politicians (all of whom suck the big one) and Australia’s media class (corrupt, complacent, compliant).
FriendlyJordies is decidedly unfriendly when he gets going. John Howard is a ‘quivering shaved chimp’ while Scott Morrison is ‘home-brand Howard’. Josh Frydenberg is ‘Alex Jones if he didn’t sell supplements’ and Clive Palmer simply ‘Fatty McF—head’. The media outlets other lefties adore, Shanks scorns. He declares the Facebook meme page The Simpsons Against the Liberals ‘a better source of news than the ABC’ and opines: ‘If I had the choice of ending world hunger or axing The Project, Africa’s just going to have to take one for the team.’
The male model turned agitator is, depending on your politics, a ballsy pamphleteer for the YouTube age or a mouthy little prick with all the confidence of youth and none of the wisdom of a mortgage. A squishy centrist, I fall somewhere between the two. Shanks cites Chomsky more often than a 30-year-old has any business doing and is essentially a pretty-boy demagogue — a shaggable Michael Moore — but turn down the volume and his analysis isn’t half bad — on debt double standards, on the distractions of identity politics, on the awfulness of the ABC. A generation whose parents grew up trusting Kerry O’Brien now trust an internet comedian for their news.
Shanks differs from much of the millennial Left in his impatience for politically correct tone-policing. He has been attacked by progressive media for refusing to toe the line on totem issues like changing the date and reviles what he sees as preening digital platforms more interested in performative wokeness than practical political action. He is not one of those Green-left sanctimony-purveyors who lament, with a weary-wise sigh, that the ALP and the Liberals are just Coke vs Pepsi. He wants Labor to win.
What turns some who share his policy prescriptions all queasy is his venturing into territory the left considers retrograde or even racist. You see, FriendlyJordies does accents. Ethnic accents.
That has now got him into trouble. Recent video broadsides against NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, whom he has dubbed ‘koala-killer’ for her response to the bushfires, and her deputy John Barilaro, featured Shanks’ mocking the pollies’ statements with exaggerated pronunciations and liberal use of ‘bruz’.
This prompted Barilaro, who is of Italian descent, to cry foul. He told the Daily Telegraph: ‘I don‘t mind taking the mickey out of myself, but this is actually very offensive. It’s a low attempt at comedy and full of racist undertones. To imitate both myself and the premier with such obvious distaste for our backgrounds is unacceptable. Our migrant story is actually the Australian success story, one this nation is proud of.’
It’s a predictable response in these times of competitive offence-taking but dismaying nonetheless. Shanks is obnoxious, foul-mouthed and partisan, but there is nothing in his videos to suggest racial bias against Barilaro or Berejiklian. He just thinks they’re rotten politicians and wants to push their buttons.
This is the point where you’d expect to read about Shanks’ tear-filled apology and promise to listen and learn about systemic prejudice in Australia. Instead, he has doubled down, releasing a video defending his impression of Barilaro as ‘spot on’ and mocking up the NSW Nationals’ leader in a Nintendo-type video game styled Super Barilaro Bruz. In a jab at the hierarchy of victimhood, Shanks faux-emotionally admits ‘I’m a wog too, bruz’, before pointing out that his family originated in Dalmatia, which was previously occupied by… the Italians. ‘I outrank you,’ he sniffs for effect.
If it’s fun to see a progressive show identity politics the contempt it deserves, Shanks also displays a better understanding of multiculturalism than Barilaro. Yes, Australia is an immigration success story, which is exactly why accents have until recently played such a central role in the nation’s comedy. Unlike British comedy, where mimicry arguably excluded first and second generation migrants from a predominantly Anglo culture — typically as something strange or ridiculous or threatening — Australians’ egalitarian sentiments and self-conscious multiculturalism should mean everyone can have a crack at everyone else.
Comedic mimicry is an inside joke that the whole community is in on, a marker of a country that doesn’t take itself too seriously and where being ribbed for superficial differences is an indicator of belonging. And the differences at issue are superficial. Accents, tropes and mannerisms can be important components of identities but they are not the entirety of those identities. Lampooning them, even in the most ribald terms, is sending up how members of a given group are perceived and how they perceive themselves. It is not meant to demean, even if we’ve been taught to think that it does.
The interaction of perception and recognition, of broad stereotypes and the narrower, but very real, behaviours that inspire them, is comedic and cathartic in a multi-ethnic culture that both celebrates and tries to overcome ethnic distinctions. The Indian-born academic Tunku Varadarajan has argued that the Simpsons’ convenience store owner Apu, another victim of cultural purging, is ‘an American icon’ for being ‘both foreign and very American’ and ‘represents the American trajectory of immigrant success and assimilation’. Mimicry in Aussie comedy has, for the most part, functioned in much the same way, with the punchlines flying in all directions in a country where some have always been, others were brought and others still chose to come, yet all are true blue. An acknowledgement of country and a chorus of the Seekers isn’t the only way to express Aussie diversity.
When Shanks seizes on Barilaro’s accent, he is ridiculing one man, not an entire ethnicity, but the current reign of terror marching through the culture orders us to believe otherwise. Whether we’re left, right, centre or a hectic mess of all three, we should fight this intellectual intimidation because its end point is a banal and soulless discourse in which not only tone but viewpoints are policed. Shanks is hardly a sympathetic case. He’s a millennial and we really are as awful as everyone says, but it’s lamentable that those usually vocal about the icy pall of political correctness have been silent in this instance. Cancel culture must be resisted across the spectrum. You’re not in the business of free speech if you’re only in it for speech you agree with.
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