Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan

Jan Böhmermann, Angela Merkel, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
The Comedian Harmonists were a Weimar Republic era male vocalist group which was very successful until it had to disband because three of its members were Jewish.  One of their many well-known numbers was a song called “Irgendwo auf der Welt” (“Somewhere in the world”) a romantic song of longing for a place to be happy.  Here’s the original.

Max Raabe, who with his Palast Orchester has revived many of the songs of the Comedian Harmonists, sings it regularly as part of his standard repertoir.  The songs runs, “Somewhere in the world there’s joy, somewhere in the world there’s happiness, somewhere in the world my path will lead to heaven…” The final words are “Irgendwo, irgendwie, irgendwann” (somewhere, somehow, sometime).

There’s also a popular rock version by the singers Nina and Kim Wilde, with the botched English translation, “Anyplace Anywhere Anytime.”  (sic – no commas).  It’s sung partly in English, but ends with the phrase “irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann.”

So the phrase is clearly in the German pop consciousness.  And it clearly inspired the satirist Jan Böhmermann to write a song about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan.  (Erdoğan is pronounced Er-do-wan – English w).   The song pissed Erdoğan off, Erdoğan complained, and Merkel came to the satirist's defense.  That gave Böhmermann the idea he could have some fun pushing the limits of the law a bit more.  So he decided to call him a goat-fucker.  

I thought the play on the song title was clever.  Unfortunately, the more you learn about Böhmermann the less you see a satirist and the more you see why Germans are often seen as totally lacking in subtlety.  Böhmermann is just crude.  Not funny.  Awful, in fact.

But that’s neither here nor there.  The attack on Erdoğan strikes a chord with many Germans who are pissed off at Angela Merkel for cozying up to Erdoğan in order to take the wind out of the sails of her critics for allowing an uncontrolled flood of asylum seekers into the country this last year.  Never mind that what she was doing was not only legal but required by EU law, to say nothing of decent and caring.  Unfortunately, the problems associated with it caused no end of trouble in the country and touched off a right-wing backlash.  To fix the problem, she worked out a deal with Erdoğan.  Turkey would take the refugees back that had spilled over into Greece on the way to the German promised land, and she would pay him a load of money for the favor.  A compromise that many argued would be a case of curing the disease and killing the patient with the side effects of the medicine.

But I don’t want to debate the refugee policy.  I want to focus on this Böhmermann guy and the fuss he has raised.  Here's the original song, Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğanwhich has been taken out of distribution in Germany, but so far is still accessible on YouTube, with English subtitles.

As you can see, it is not what most people would call satire.  It's a direct political attack on Erdoğan's brutally repressive policies.  But that's only the beginning of the story.  The real trouble came when Böhmermann decided to push the limits of the law with a poem which has everybody debating the line between satire and "Schmähkritik" (abusive criticism), a legal distinction in Germany which, if I understand it correctly, means you are not protected by the law if your criticism goes beyond common decency and what can be demonstrated to be true.  Given the assumption that Erdoğan didn't actually fuck goats, or children (not while bombing the Kurds, in any case, as the poem declares) one may assume Böhmermann is in trouble here. Erdoğan may be a nasty piece of work, but he is unfortunately a foreign leader, and this Paragraph 103 would seem to be working in Erdoğan's favor, particularly since Böhmermann announced just before reading his poem that he was using the word Schmähkritik as the poem's title! Here's the poem in question, with English subtitles.

And that puts Merkel between a rock and a hard place. First she defends this oaf, Böhmermann. Then he tells his audience that he is deliberately trying to see how far the law will go, and calls Erdoğan not only a goat-fucker and pedophile, but a "homo," presumably because this is one of the best ways to provoke a macho homophobe.

Where do you stand?  I’m naturally in favor of free expression and figure a bully like Erdoğan – who has very dirty hands indeed – ought to simply shut up and allow the democracies of the European Union which he wants so desperately to join, to do their thing.  Nobody in a democracy has the right, alas, to shut down bad taste.  If Muslims have to put up with satire of the prophet Mohammed, Erdoğan can learn to laugh off being called a pederast and a goat fucker.  It bears repeating that the freedoms we claim for ourselves in a democracy are always best tested when the limits are pushed. The expression comes to mind: "I disagree with what you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

Things get more interesting here because I suddenly have to ask myself whether I could put my money where my mouth is and die to defend this asshole who taunted the Turkish president with the word "homo."  If my point isn't clear here, imagine him taunting him with the word "dirty Jew," instead. You don't "taunt" with words traditionally used as put-downs without raising all sorts of questions about your own racism or homophobia or whatever.

Germany is acutely conscious of having suffered two back-to-back tyrannies, first Hitler, then communist East Germany, where free-expression was a great way to get yourself killed.  You can't blame Germany for wanting to defend free speech at all costs - with the single notable exception that you are not allowed to speak out against Jews or for Hitler and the Nazi ideology.

That's what makes this case such a big deal.  Germany is being tested.  Paragraph 103 of the Penal Code reads:

Whosoever insults a foreign head of state, or, with respect to his position, a member of a foreign government who is in Germany in his official capacity, or a head of a foreign diplomatic mission who is accredited in the Federal territory shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, in case of a slanderous insult to imprisonment from three months to five years.
source: https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_stgb/englisch_stgb.html 

I'm not sure about how this applies to Erdoğan when he is not physically present in Germany, but I assume calling him a goat-fucker is probably covered.  (There's another Paragraph for insulting ordinary people, which can cost you only one year in jail, but that's another matter.)

Merkel is chief executive of a state founded on the rule of law.  Her best bet, I should think, would be to disengage herself entirely, tell her Turkish friends privately that she is disgusted by the bad taste, but she has to let the courts take over.  And insist that they should not be surprised if the German courts follow the rule in dubio pro libertate - when in doubt err on the side of freedom - and let Böhmermann off the hook.  They could just as easily, of course, decide there is nothing in dubio here, and nail his ass.

Prosecutors in Mainz have opened an investigation into the legality of Böhmermann's insults. Böhmermann, meanwhile, lives in Cologne under police protection.  He has cancelled his show and all public appearances and one has to wonder if he is having second thoughts.

This is a story worth following, I think.

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