In the media frenzy following the German Government’s decision to allow German comedian Jan Böhmermann to be prosecuted for insulting Erdoğan under what The Guardian referred to as a an’ obscure German law’, Merkel has come under fierce attack.
The comedian in question, one of Germany’s most popular satirists, whose style has been compared to that of John Oliver and Monty Python, has already announced that he will be cancelling the show until May.
Since then, the story has gained increasing international attention. Most notably, when British paper The Spectator offered 1,000 GBP in prize money in a competition for the ‘best’ poem’ insulting the Turkish President. The German foreign office has since issued a travel warning, urging German tourists to refrain from criticizing the Turkish Government in public.
Following this, the Turkish authorities have detained and deported another German, Volker Schwenk; a journalist for the state-run television channel ARD. In a subsequent event, the editor in chief of Sputnik Turkey, Tural Kerimov, was deported upon arrival in Ankara. Additionally, the Turkish government shut down Sputnik Turkey’s website for so-called ‘administrative measures’. And most recently, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has found himself at odds with the Turkish Government, after the Turkish embassy in the Netherlands issued a call for Turks to report slanderous remarks among the Dutch populous.
Indeed, Merkel’s decision seems to have boosted the Turkish Government’s confidence in repressing foreign media and squashing criticism not only in its own country, but abroad as well. In allowing the prosecution of one comedian, it seems the chancellor has set a dangerous precedent for the entire continent.
Yet for a debate that has centred so squarely on ‘what was said’, surely the act of saying it was equally, if not more, important than the slanderous words of the SchmähGedicht (Slander Poem) itself. To illustrate this, let us imagine what would have occurred if the comedian had expressed the exact opposite of his poem, an anti-slander poem as it were. Presumably it would have read something like this: ‘Dear Erdoğan, you do not copulate with goats, you do not trample Kurds, you don’t watch child pornography, you are not a closet homosexual and so on and so forth. It becomes clear that even to say the exact opposite would do nothing but reinforce the slanderous intent itself.
Therefore the legal focus on what was said, and the legal documents over which German lawyers will now no doubt bend their noses to determine whether or not it was illegal to say that Erdoğan is guilty of the above, can itself only be considered as another form of satire. Indeed, as the French poet Mallarmé famously quipped: “one writes poems with words, not thoughts.” But what if those words are considered ‘illegal’?
The mechanisms of the joke are to be found mirrored in an infamous episode in the British House of Commons, which enjoys an exhaustive list of what constitutes so-called ‘unparliamentary language’. In one version of the story, the labour MP Dennis Skinner tells the bench that ‘Half the Tories opposite are crooks!’ When the speaker of the house interrupts him to explain that this violates the speech rules, the MP is to have said, ‘Ok, then half the Tories are NOT crooks’. Naturally the effect of the inversion becomes comedic, yet is still barred by the chair. The episode lives on exactly for its clever play on negation. The insult itself is only secondary, plays second fiddle to the speech act as such.
Donald Trump demonstrates a presumably intuitive understanding of this mechanism when he says ‘I have the best words’. In the case of the Erdoğan versus Böhmermann debate, surely Böhmermann has the best words, exactly because they are the worst words, the unutterable ones.
Ironically, the law under which this crisis is being played out is one that harkens back to the time when Germany was still a ‘Kaiserrech’ and the crime of insulting heads of states was intended to protect foreign monarchs, not elected officials. Yet isn’t this exactly what the affair invokes and reconfirms, that of Erdoğan as sultan? This is where the satirical element of the slander poem reaches its full potential in bending reality to its own prejudice. A skit appears in which Erdoğan is accused of being a totalitarian dictator, and what does Erdoğan do in response? He lives up to the satire by acting out exactly in the way he was portrayed in the satirical skit.
The shock, in Germany at least, lies therefore not in Erdoğan’s response – which is to be expected- but in the fact that the German government is now seemingly siding with him. Here we can clearly identify a lose-lose situation for Merkel’s position. Either she has to defend the indefensible, and in doing so reinforces the liberal smugness underlying the satirical skit, or on the other hand – as is now apparent- she must allow the satire to play out in public by relegating it to the courts.
The German magazine ‘Stern’ succinctly summed up the less-than noble desire to use the satire to ‘stick-it’ to the Turkish Government, when columnist Stephen Maus wrote – we can presume with true regret – that in the past weeks the Government has missed out on a ‘wonderful opportunity’ to teach a lesson in democratic principles to the autocratic Erdoğan (Die Regierung hatte in den vergangenenen Wochen wunderbare Gelegenheiten, dem Autocraten Erdoğan eine Lektion in demokratischen Grundwerten zu erteilen.).
Can we really begrudge Merkel therefore that she would rather not give in to such self-righteous impulses? Already in the debate surrounding the SchmähGedicht, the ‘poem’ has been elevated to the status of art, where at its core it is a deeply conservative exercise in stale prejudices devoid of comedic value. To treat the poem as art is therefore to ignore the rather artful way in which the satire was staged in the first place.
Again, it is the speech act rather than the words themselves that fuel the satiric content. For the poem itself is merely a list of insults. There is nothing comedic to the slurs as such. One can only assume that Böhmermann himself is keenly aware of the dynamics underlying the joke. To support this theory, one has but to look at one of his older, and much more cleverly produced skits. In a song mocking German values, he sings, “Germans are proud of not being proud”.
In this statement lies the true essence of the current crisis. It is not, as pundits would have it, that ‘rules are meant to be broken’ and that ‘the whole point of having boundaries is to test them’ (mit Grenzen spielen). A cruel irony reveals itself here in the linguistic overlap between the German words for ‘border’ and ‘boundaries’, i.e. Grenzen. For isn’t Germany’s stance towards Europe exactly that of securing borders and determining boundaries?
If anything, the Böhmermann affair confirms that the German pride of not being proud is embodied in a similar desire to insult to prove one’s freedom to do so. In this sense, Merkel’s decision to prosecute the comedian can be understood – if not defended- as a rebuttal to this impulse.
Yet no matter how the story plays out, and whether German public opinion can decide among itself whether or not the poem was art or slander, the episode is already a victory for Erdoğan’s strongman persona and doctrine of polarization. So easily has he proven himself yet again as a modern-day Eris, the Greek Goddess of strife, by casually throwing the apple of discord to provoke German liberal sensitivities. In satire, as in politics, it seems Erdoğan still has the last laugh.