In what seemed to be a victory for President Erdoğan, German chancellor Angela Merkel has initiated legal action against German comedian Jan Böhmermann, who in a televised ‘SchmähGedicht’ (Slander Poem) made various insults to Erdoğan’s person.
Yet before liberal critics rise up to denounce the export to Germany of Erdoğan’s repressive governing style, the details of the incident deserve first to be clarified.
Two skits, not one, are at the heart of the current controversy. The comedian is currently facing charges for the second skit, but not for the first. The first aired in late march and was a satirical video mocking Erdoğan’s authoritarian persona. The video became a viral sensation, and spurned Turkey’s Prime Minister to summon the German ambassador to Turkey to his offices in Ankara, but no formal charges were filed.
The second skit, for which the comedian is facing criminal charges, consists of a reading of a short ‘poem’. The poem consists of a list of smears against Erdoğan, delivered in rhyme. The passage accuses Erdoğan of copulating with goats, consuming child pornography, being a closet homosexual, and so on.
In essence, the second skit is an exhaustive list of crude and tasteless ad hominem attacks, indeed slurs, which the comedian refers to as intentionally being in breach of German hate-speech law. However, certain media outlets outside of Germany have conflated these two incidents, and in doing so detract from the duality that makes this case so interesting in the first place.
Bad Joke versus Good Joke
If we look at the case from some distance, it appears incomprehensible why a comedian would follow up on a very successful skit (the original video was viewed millions of time online) with one that would almost certainly lead to career-suicide. Gore Vidal’s famous dictum has seemingly been extended to reveal the comedian’s true desire. No longer content with Vidal’s “It is not enough for me to win. The other must lose”, we have instead “It is not enough for me to win. I must lose as well”.
Yet this still does not explain why the comedian would follow up on a joke, i.e. the original skit, – with exactly a non-joke, a simple list of direct insults with no pretence of being grounded in reality, and without any of the mechanisms that would otherwise fuel a joke. To understand what is happening here, we need to understand not just the context, but the dynamic between joke and slander, and the petty bourgeois moralism that seeks to make this distinction explicit.
In the classical tradition, Aristotle defines humour exactly as being derived of abuse, and suggests that the origin of comedy lies in the trading of insults. This is echoed in Plato’s idea that humour always contains a malicious element (hence, in part, its exclusion from his Republic). It strives to mock the vices of others, usually its superiors, but has no need for these vices to exist in veracity.
In other words, humour mocks power, and the comedy lies exactly in the testing of the power relation, not in the ruler’s inherent vices as such. As a result, Plato warns that an excess of humour can lead to buffoonery – exactly when the comedic act is no longer at the forefront of the comedic intent. What this means, is that the telling of a joke, if done outside the socially accepted boundaries, can make the joke-teller himself the butt of his own joke. It is as if Plato wanted to seize the jokester and yell at him “ha! The joke is now on you!”
The same holds true for the German comedian’s skits. The first is funny because of the superiority element, the criticism of Erdoğan and the reversal of showing images that depict Erdoğan as villain instead of leader. But the second skit, the insult-poem, is no longer comedy. It is merely the graphic malice underlying the previous joke, i.e. the shamed figure, the butt of the joke in plain sight.
This is also why the second joke is offensive to us, whereas the first is not. Does this mean the first skit succeeds and the second fails? There is something here that grates still. If the slur-poem is not even in poor taste, but as we can now see, is exactly an anti-joke, should that make it punishable by law? Why is it that the anti-joke, the distilled residue of insult that otherwise fuels a ‘good’ joke, becomes so offensive to us in its naked form?
In this, the liberal attitude finds its most petty fulfilment. When Muslim fundamentalists protest the publication of images of Mohammed, they are not derided for their passions, but for the fact that they don’t pursue them by means of legal action. For the liberal’s love of press freedom is matched only by his unmitigated love for legal freedom. Both are after all intended to moralize, test, and codify social practice.
Humour as Liberal Self-Righteousness?
In this, the very caricature of Erdoğan plays out in the aftermath of the slur-poem, not in the joke itself, but in its praxis. For the severity of the insults practically forces the German Government to act against its own press, and in doing so makes the Germans seem as villainous as the Turks – who, let’s remember, were mocked in the first skit as being against press freedom.
The joke of the second skit therefore targets the liberal self-righteousness, which while turning a blind eye to Turkey’s increasing authoritarianism, enjoys mocking it. At its root, the slur-poem is therefore deeply conservative, in that it mocks both the authoritarian and the liberal stance. Seen in this light, the German comedian’s anti-joke takes on the form of antionomy, or, as Zizek would have it: “Liberalism or Fundamentalism? A plague on both their houses!”
Subsequently, the episode has already spawned an international discussion on what makes a joke ‘good’, or in other words, acceptable to liberal sensitivities. But let’s remember that even a ‘bad’ joke can be a good joke, and that only the anti-joke can ever be a truly bad joke in its purest form.
A Killing Joke
The truly devious antinomy of the joke, which we now begin to see revealed as indeed a killing joke, is that it grants the Turkish political elite a victory over Germany’s supposed liberal stance on press freedom. This is why the two skits need to be seen in tandem for them to make sense.
In the first skit, Germans can congratulate themselves on the comparative freedoms they enjoy, and the liberal stance of their Government in contrast to Erdoğan. In the wake of the second skit, Turks can congratulate themselves on their own superiority as the German liberal stance has in turn revealed itself as a leaky ship. That in both skits Erdoğan appears at first to be the butt of the joke, distracts from the fact that his persona is at best only its vehicle – the means to an end. The first skit mocks Turkey’s lacklustre democracy. The second, in turn, is meant to expose Germany’s own smugness.
But does the end justify the means, especially when they are this extreme? Already the slur-poem has been taken offline, the comedian has been made to publicly apologize, and faces up to three years in prison for insulting a foreign head of state. This is also why, at its most fundamental, the joke paradoxically has been most successful exactly in its failure to be a ‘good’ joke.
The final clue becomes clear when we observe a simple reversal. In the original skit, the slanderous material was all based on fact. Every accusation levelled against Erdoğan was indeed true. Moreover, so eccentric is the Turkish President’s ruling-style that it is often remarked upon that his behaviour is so odd ‘you couldn’t make it up’.
Why then, faced with a treasure-trove of comedic material, would the German comedian choose to go down the route of fictitious ad-hominem insults? In other words, why create such an intentionally, and truly ‘bad’ joke, if not to use it to expose the mechanisms of political joke-telling in the first place? Of course we still have to entertain the notion that perhaps the second skit was simply a fluke, a stupid mistake, an unthinking error. Either way, ultimately – the joke is on us.