Testing the limits: M’bala M’bala draws on anti-establishment and anti-Jewish feelings that are deeply rooted in France François Berthier/Contour/Getty.
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Dieudonné’s war on France: the Holocaust comedian who isn’t funny

Dieudonné is no Bernard Manning or Frankie Boyle, whose humour is purposelessly offensive. In recent years, he has set out on a political mission to provoke the French state and test the limits of French law.

The Passage de la Main d’Or, half a mile or so from the Place de la Bastille, is a nondescript, narrow street in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, which these days is a fairly chic quarter in eastern Paris. Halfway down the street is the Théâtre de la Main d’Or, a tiny theatre-cum-cabaret. At the entrance to the theatre there is pro-Jewish graffiti – a Star of David and the insignia of the LDJ (Ligue de Défense Juive, or “Jewish Defence League”), a hardcore group of young Jewish activists. Despite its historical credentials – this is the part of Paris where the revolution of 1789 really kicked off – there is little here to suggest any serious threat to the French republic.

The cramped theatre is the headquarters of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a comedian who comes from a mixed French and Cameroonian background and whose allegedly anti-Semitic performances have lately convulsed France. Dieudonné has only recently come to the attention of the British public following Nicolas Anelka’s use of the quenelle, a form of inverted Nazi salute invented by Dieudonné, to celebrate scoring a goal for West Bromwich Albion against West Ham. The gesture baffled spectators in England, including the West Brom manager, Keith Downing, but spoke directly to a French public for which the quenelle used by Dieudonné and his supporters is a gesture of contempt for and defiance of what they see as “official France”, mainly controlled by a Jewish elite whose only mission is to preserve Jewish interests.

Unsurprisingly, a large part of Dieudonné’s audience is male and comes from the banlieue of Paris, the poor and run-down suburbs surrounding the city which have a predominantly immigrant population. One of the common beliefs in the banlieue is that France is under the control of Jews.

“France is under Israeli occupation,” said Denis, a 47-year-old Dieudonné fan in the pages of Le Parisien. Denis often attends the comedian’s shows brandishing a pineapple – a reference to the song “Shoananas” (the name a mash-up of “Shoah” and the French word for “pineapple”), a Dieudonné favourite that makes fun of the Holocaust.

“We just come to see Dieudonné for a laugh,” I was told by a middle-aged couple at a café down the road from the theatre. “He takes the piss and that’s why the establishment hate him. The quenelle is just a joke.”

But it’s a joke the French government is taking very seriously. In the most recent twist in the tale of Dieudonné’s confrontations with the French state (he has several convictions for making anti-Semitic statements), the interior minister, Manuel Valls, has invoked the Conseil d’État, the highest legal authority in France, to uphold a ban on Dieudonné’s performances. They are deemed a risk to “public order” and “national cohesion”.

On the face of it, this seems clumsy and heavy-handed. Valls has been criticised by many on his own side for ensuring that Dieudonné gets what he wants – the status of victim and martyr. In recent days Valls has made himself look petty and vengeful by threatening to pursue a lawsuit against Dieudonné for “public insult”, reinforcing the man’s position as a satirist who is tweaking the nose of authority.

For a long time this was Dieudonné’s shtick (a word he probably doesn’t use) – the view of the “petit Français moyen”, the average French bloke, who laughs at the hypocrisies and stupidities of the world beyond the café counter. His usual targets were the powerful and the rich.

The comedian’s monologues are always punctuated by a grating snigger. But Dieudonné is no Bernard Manning or Frankie Boyle, whose humour is purposelessly offensive. In recent years, he has set out on a political mission to provoke the French state and to test the limits of French law – specifically the Loi Gayssot of 1990, the so-called loi anti-négationniste, which, among other things, in effect makes Holocaust denial (“négationnisme”, in French) a crime.

More to the point, the Loi Gayssot places limits on how far an individual can claim that crimes against humanity, as defined at the Nuremberg trials, did not happen – and that is the point of law he has been challenging with his propaganda.

This is what the so-called Affaire Dieudonné has been all about and it is why Valls had no choice but to ban the performer.

Most provocatively, Dieudonné has several times invited the “negationist” writer Robert Faurisson on stage with him. There are many in Dieudonné’s audience who probably don’t know who Faurisson is, even as they cheer on his rants. But, for the French government, Faurisson is one of the most notorious and militant “negationists” active in France. Though he has been fined heavily and repeatedly for breaking the Loi Gayssot, he is still loudly vocal in denying that the Holocaust ever happened. In recent years, he has declared this from Tehran, where in 2012 Mahmoud Ahmad­inejad awarded him a “prize for courage, strength and force” and received him at a private audience. (Ahmadinejad also had a private meeting with Dieudonné when he went to Iran and there are rumours that Iran has been financing the comedian.)

With all this, Dieudonné is placing himself firmly in the “negationist” tradition of French politics. It is a strain of thinking that began in the 1950s with the writings of Paul Rassinier, who argued that the Jews had brought the calamities of the Second World War on themselves and that the gas chambers never existed anyway. For a time these ideas held currency in far-left circles (the big names backing them included Pierre Guillaume, Jacques Vergès and Roger Garaudy) but also found approval in the Front National (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s infamous reference to the gas chambers as a “detail of history”).

Dieudonné is taking negationism from being an underground conspiracy theory and moving it up into the mainstream. He is, as an article for Le Monde by Michel Dreyfus, a senior historian at the University of Paris, described it, making a “negationism” for the masses.

Dieudonné has never explicitly denied the Holocaust: he doesn’t have to. You can see what he means by the company he keeps; it’s easy to find on YouTube the sickening sight of Robert Faurisson being hailed as a hero by Dieudonné’s audience at the Théâtre de la Main d’Or.

One may or may not agree with the Loi Gayssot – there is no such law in England – but it is also true, from the Dreyfus affair to the German occupation to the killings of Jewish children by an Islamist fanatic in Toulouse in 2012, that the French experience of anti-Semitism is very specific.

For the time being, Dieudonné seems to have capitulated, promising to concentrate on Africa rather than the Jews. And yet, at the same time, he has become an even bigger hero to the disaffected youths who form the core of his audience.

A short walk from the Passage de la Main d’Or is the rue des Rosiers, which, despite an influx of designer showrooms, remains the heart of Jewish life in Paris. This is a place steeped in suffering, from the deportations of the Second World War to the massacre at Goldenberg’s deli in 1982, when six people were killed by unknown gunmen. Accordingly, for all its friendly falafel stores and coffee shops, the atmosphere can be tense. This was the case one afternoon recently when I took a stroll through the district and watched as an Italian television crew, reporting on the Dieudonné affair, was manhandled by a group of Jewish lads.

“We are sick of this,” a middle-aged lady who’d been shouting at the Italians told me. “We do not care about this miserable Dieudonné. Why should we care? We just want to get on with our lives.”

I understood her anger. The Dieudonné affair had not been created by Jews, but once again this community was being scrutinised in the media as if the Jews themselves were on trial. “What you have to understand,” I was told by a young Orthodox Jew who spoke fluent Hebrew, French and Brooklynese, “is that Dieudonné is not the problem. He’s just one guy, one anti-Semite. The real problem is that in France there are so many of them out there.”

Andrew Hussey is the dean of the University of London Institute in Paris. His new book, “The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and Its Arabs” (Granta), will be published in March

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge