Jan Böhmermann. Wikimedia. CC.As Merkel and Erdoğan face off, following the so-called SchmähGedicht (Slander Poem) in which the German comedian Jan Böhmermann publicly accused the Turkish President of copulating with goats, trampling Kurds, and being a closet homosexual, the German press has erupted in a frenzy of editorials and opinion-pieces regarding the boundaries between satire and slander, freedom of speech and freedom of art.
Yet isn’t the debate about the so-called ‘Böhmermann affair’, a bit ridiculous, melodramatic even? Rarely have such lofty beliefs been dusted off so readily and to such a dramatic tune as with the Erdoğan versus Böhmermann crisis. Yet behind the dramatic rhetoric in the German press lies a less noble and more xenophobic depiction of Turkey and Turks in general as ‘Kulturfeinde’, staged as a diametrically opposed culture-clash in which Germany can sleep easily in the knowledge it has re-established its humanist credentials.
Even the otherwise rather restrained Der Spiegel, featured this week as its lead editorial (Leitartikel) the accusation that “Angela Merkel thinks the Turkish President is more important than artistic freedom (Freiheit der Kunst)”. So easily it seems we’ve transcended the debate on the freedom of speech and replaced it with the freedom of art.
The SchmähGedicht (slander poem) was so offensive, so out of context, and so foreign to Germany’s politically correct sensibilities, that surely it must be ART- or so one might imagine the thought process underlying such editorials. Yet Böhmermann’s satire has more in common with the now widely supported cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo than with the work of an artist as such.
It’s a poor plight indeed, when the supposed European avant-garde consists of a group of people who insult, not even in earnest, but as an ironically detached acting out of the principles underlying free speech. Following Bertold Brecht, who poignantly warned “pity the country that needs heroes”, in Europe today, where we rely on our comedians to draw the boundaries of political criticism for us, we might as well say “pity the country that needs satirists.” The question here, as to why we feel compelled to export our principles into the realm of heroics, holds equally true for the sudden re-discovered enthusiasm of satire as art. But is it really satire, if it only mocks the power of others?
For it is hard to shake the feeling that the real reason why the Böhmermann crisis has exceeded all rational proportions, has more to do with German dissatisfaction with Merkel than with Erdogan. Indeed, that Erdogan’s political style and rhetoric is that of a bonafide bigot is commonly accepted knowledge in Germany, and is no longer even remotely newsworthy. Instead, the deep discomfort at the ‘practical’ way in which the refugee crisis is being ‘managed’ by the German political elite, effectively turns these lofty debates on the supposed ‘freedom of the press’ and the ‘freedom of art’ into that much hot air, escapism even.
To flatter oneself with obsessive re-interpreting of the SchmähGedicht brings to mind the Brother Grimm’s enchanted mirror. In this case, one might change it to: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is the most liberal of them all?” With the mirror’s response being: “Ah, truly there is no one more liberal than you!” The fear of course being that in due time someone else will become more liberal, or beautiful, than the gazer. Indeed, the German fascination with the Böhmermann case reveals a deep narcissism that completely drowns out the fact that the ‘poem’ was always intended to violate German hate speech laws in the first place.
This is how we end up with such meaningless statements as “the freedom of art is more far-reaching than the freedom of the press” (Die Freiheit der Kunst geht weiter als die Freiheit der Presse) or “Actually, one should be proud to live in a country that allows Art to flourish so freely” (Eigentlich sollte man stolz sein, in einem land zu leben das der Freiheit der Kunst diesen Rang einräumt), both courtesy of Der Spiegel’s ‘Leitartikel’. With self-congratulatory rhetoric like this going around, it is little wonder that the story has garnered only little international attention. The Guardian referred to Erdogan’s attempt to sue the Comedian as exploiting an ‘obscure German law’.
The backdrop to this impassioned debate is of course the refugee crisis, and the inability to formulate an appropriate response. In this light, it takes on a tragic-comic effect when comedians such as Jon Stewart, for example, declare that they’re on ‘team civilization’ or that German bookshops now sell guides in Arabic and German explaining that “German police are not corrupt” and that it’s “ok, to feel overwhelmed when you enter a German shopping mall for the first time.” If anything, such statements – uttered as they are in complete earnest- sound more like actual satire than anything contained in Böhmermann’s so-called slander poem.
So when the Turkish prime minister calls the poem a ‘crime against humanity’ and Germans react in outrage that this evokes the language of the Nuremberg trials, those statements should not be taken at face value, but as another form of satire. An acting out of political ideals to the backdrop of a long and extended death of those principles in the first place. Should we therefore not elevate such rhetoric to ‘art’ as well? After all, the politico’s art is one that is always prone to unintended self-satire.
And if one really wants to bring German art into the debate, then one might as well compare the entire episode to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. After all, no one milked out the tediously slow death of an ideal as did the German composer in his epic operas, flirting for hours with the climactic theme of the drowning lovers. For in free art, as in free press, the downward spiral is always more fascinating than the death itself. As long as Merkel continues to defend Erdoğan’s political paranoia, she will face the wrath of the German public. In this satirical acting out of Turkish-German prejudices, the politicians are the true comedians.