and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
— Martin Niemöller
I don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to hide Rick Mercer if the government ever came after him.
You know, if he ever really got under their skin with an especially stinging Rick’s Rant. Think I’m kidding? If only I were.
With disturbing frequency, many purportedly democratic governments around the world are mounting up to ride after their critics, lasso in hand. Australian police recently snooped into the metadata of a single journalist whose stories on how authorities kept migrants out of the country upset the government. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange remain fugitives for the high crime of exposing the democracy-killing sins of Big Government. And if the guy who leaked the Panama Papers ever gets nabbed, he just better hope that he never falls into the hands of Donald Trump.
All free-speechers are at risk in this brave new world — opposition politicians, bureaucrats of conscience, muckraking journalists, poets, even comedians. And don’t forget ordinary people in danger of being turned in by their neighbours, á la Cuba (Remember the Snitch Line? There but by the grace of the Canadian voter goes our society). Those who dare challenge governments are all finding themselves the quarry as those elected elites look to hang their critics high.
Consider the case of Jan Bohmermann, the German TV personality and comedian who triggered an affair of state with a five-minute satirical clip on the German public broadcaster ZDF. After three weeks, the cause celebre is still running strong and the TV presenter announced he will be taking a break from broadcasting, “so the public and the Internet can return to focusing on the important things in life like the refugee crisis, cat videos and the love life of Sophia Thomalla.”
Bohmermann, who is now under police protection, was making light of a very bad situation.
Bohmermann’s target was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the democratic despot who runs Turkey like a private fan club. Erdogan has quite the modus operandi. Having trouble with the free press? Take over the newspapers. Don’t like the TV coverage? Commandeer the airwaves. Getting ticked off with brick bats tossed by detractors? Arrest them and throw them into prison. Pesky Russian fighter jets straying into your airspace for a few seconds? Easy-peasy; blow them out of the sky.
But what do you do to someone who satirically accuses you on national television in a comedy skit of “goat-fucking,” being “dumb as a post, cowardly, and uptight” and “kicking Kurds, beating Christians, all while watching child porno films?”
There was much more, including shrivelled testicles. Whether you like or recoil from Bohmermann’s “satire”, it was not merely uncouth ditch-wallowing. He was actually making a point about the limits of what’s allowed in Germany, where abusive criticism is prohibited. His Erdogan doggerel was designed to show exactly what is not allowed, but such niceties got lost in translation — particularly in Turkey. The question boils down to a philosophical chestnut: was Bohmermann’s skit art or a crime?
To the staff at ZDF, the skit was legitimate satire. A committee of editors at the public broadcaster sent a letter to their bosses expressing their support for Bohmermann’s poem. They claimed that because the ZDF program triggered a public debate involving the heads of state in Germany and Turkey, it was a case of “Program mission fulfilled.” Top dogs at the station weren’t so sure. They pulled the skit from their online video archive, noting that the broadcast was “borderline.” Interestingly, the top dog of dogs, Thomas Bellut, green-lighted the satirical broadcast.
The staff of Der Spiegel got in on the act with a lengthy piece on the comedy skit that touched off an international incident. They saw Bohmermann’s skit as a work of art in itself:
“Indeed, the effect of Bohmermann’s sketch is akin to a work of art: It is a puzzle that has inspired people to think hard about our crazy world and the mad times in which we live. Instead of holding up a mirror to the country, which is allegedly the function of cabaret, Bohmermann has sent the country into a hall of mirrors and has provoked all kinds of strange reactions. It is, in fact, these reactions which have transformed the mini-sketch into a bona fide work of art.”
The view from Ankara was less Renaissance and more Spanish Inquisition. The Turkish president demanded Bohmermann’s head. Erdogan requested that Chancellor Angela Merkel have the comedian charged under a dubious German law that forbids insulting the heads of foreign governments. Before Merkel could decide what to do, Erdogan himself filed criminal charges against Bohmermann.
If the man they call the “Prince of the Bosphorous had waited, Merkel would have done his dirty work for him. First, the German Chancellor declared that Bohmermann’s skit was “consciously injurious.” It was language that took all the surprise out of her next move — allowing German prosecutors to open a criminal case against the TV comedian. Merkel ultimately agreed with Erdogan, the man who views a free press and free speech as stumbling blocks to his complete authority.
Bohmermann’s plight has put Chancellor Merkel between a rock and a hard place. Many Germans remember her words in the wake of the horrific attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed by a pair of Islamic terrorists. The attack took place after the “satirical” magazine published “blasphemous” images of the Prophet Mohamed. Merkel did not speak of the magazine’s “consciously injurious” cartoons back then, but of the values that supported the publication of such “satirical” materials.
“This is an attack against the values we all hold dear, values by which we stand, values of freedom of the press, freedom in general, and dignity of man,” Merkel said.
The obvious question now is: Why did she stand up for the satirists of Charlie Hebdo and their right to freedom of speech, and throw German citizen Jan Bohmermann to the Turkish wolves as a potential criminal on behalf of a foreign tyrant? The answer could very well be power politics.
The sad truth is that Merkel needs Erdogan to extract her from the worst mistake she has made in government — assuming that other European countries would follow her lead in opening their borders to Syrian refugees. When they did not, and the forces of Islamophobia made receiving large numbers of refugees highly unpopular, she turned to Turkey for help. German borders would remain open, but with Erdogan’s help, the flow of refugees into Europe would be reduced. As Stefan Kuzmany put it in Der Spiegel, their deal “called for transforming her dubious partner Erdogan into the European Union’s bouncer.”
And whatever else that is, it’s certainly not funny.
Rick Mercer gave me the straight goods:
“That Germany, allegedly one of the world’s greatest democracies, would criminally prosecute one of its own citizens for jokes, good or bad, tasteful or tasteless, should be unbelievable. It is especially hard to believe considering the German people are known first and foremost for their highly refined sense of humour. I would make a sloppy analogy between Germany’s history of crimes against humanity and its current practice of crimes against comedies but I will refrain lest Merkel attempt to pull in a favour from her G7 ally Canada and have me charged under the Canadian Good Taste Act of 1898.”
As I said, I can help you find a good hiding place, Rick.
Author: Michael Harris