Note: Contains explicit language.
In a recent contribution to this blog, Isabela Karibjanian takes readers to Serbia, where a comedian’s satirical bid for the presidency has attracted unexpected levels of support. Disillusioned with mainstream politicians and worried that the country’s democracy is eroding, Serbian voters turn to unlikely saviors.
Against this background, Karibjanian asks: Can comedy counter democratic backsliding in Serbia? ‘Probably not,’ she concludes, an answer as sobering as it is ambiguous. For one, it is unclear what ‘countering’ backsliding would look like. But the deeper issue lies at the heart of politically inspired humor and art. How do we gauge the effectiveness of political activism that upends convention?
To understand why this is a conundrum, look to Germany. In just four years, the country has seen the emergence of a powerful new political force – the Alternative for Germany (AfD, by its German initials). The far-right populist party has capitalized on widespread concerns about Angela Merkel’s welcoming refugee policy of 2015 and an uptick in Islamist terrorism, including a deadly attack on a Berlin Christmas market in 2016. But the AfD has also drawn attention for racist comments and a revisionist approach to Germany’s history, with its leaders criticizing what they view as an institutionalized obsession with German guilt. This has come as a shock to the political establishment, which has seen an open and unapologetic engagement with the atrocities of Nazism part of the country’s modern identity.
As a result, the AfD has been a favorite target of comedians, who have used humor to criticize the party’s xenophobia and flirtations with neo-Nazism, or to reveal what they see as hypocrisy on the part of the AfD. But it is not always clear who benefits most from this type of criticism.
In April of this year, for instance, prominent AfD politician Alice Weidel made headlines for inveighing against political correctness, saying that it belonged “on the trash heap of history.” Weidel’s comment was broadcast by Extra 3, a satirical news show. The show’s presenter Christian Ehring nodded in mock agreement. “Yes! Let’s put an end to political correctness, let’s all be incorrect. The Nazi bitch is right,” Ehring said, adding, “Was that incorrect enough? I hope so.”
Weidel took offense and sought an interim injunction against a re-airing of the program. A court denied her request, arguing that the show had satirically exaggerated Weidel’s attack on political correctness and therefore exercised protected free speech. The show had landed a successful coup exposing the AfD’s double standards – showing that the party doesn’t like political correctness…except when it does.
However, the AfD has deftly used the episode for its own ends. In August, Alexander Gauland, Weidel’s running mate, came under fire for a comment about Aydan Özoguz, a minister in Angela Merkel’s government. Speaking at a campaign rally, Gauland suggested that Özoguz, who holds double German and Turkish citizenship, should be “disposed of in Anatolia.” The comment was widely condemned as racist. However, Gauland ruled out an apology, saying his comment was harmless in comparison to the phrase “nazi bitch” used against his colleague Weidel by Extra 3. Glossing over contextual differences, Gauland has successfully turned the satirical “nazi bitch” comment into a justification for his own non-satirical provocations and transgressions.
This is no exception. AfD leaders have consistently used satire and activism directed against them to their own gain. Take Björn Höcke, a regional AfD leader, who first rose to national prominence in late 2015 for warning about Africans’ “reproductive strategies.” In early 2017, Höcke criticized Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust, as a “monument of shame.” Höcke also demanded a “180-degree turn” in Germany’s culture of remembrance. In response, activists built a miniature version of the memorial outside Höcke’s home in a village in eastern Germany, having rented a neighboring property for the occasion. The activists are part of the “Center for Political Beauty,” a group that uses drastic “artistic interventions” to draw attention to a variety of political causes. The group has widely publicized its latest stunt against Höcke on social media. It offers a live video feed showing the miniature memorial against the backdrop of Höcke’s residence. It also documents harassment and threats against the group, presumably by AfD supporters.
But the group has not left it at that. It also claims that it spent 10 months spying on Höcke, acting as a self-proclaimed “civilian intelligence agency,” and has said that it would release details about Höcke’s private life unless he showed atonement by falling to his knees in front of its memorial. (The group is said to have dropped this demand after prosecutors announced they were investigating the group for unlawful coercion).
Whether the activists’ campaign has legal repercussions remains to be seen, but it has already given the AfD an opportunity to cast itself as the victim of an intimidation campaign. Höcke condemned the group’s stunt as terrorism and his party called it an “attack on human dignity.” This narrative is likely to resonate among AfD supporters and perhaps even the broader public.
This is not to suggest that satire and provocative political art are inherently damaging to democratic discourse – on the contrary. Perhaps more than any other forms of expression, they symbolize the right to ridicule, provoke and even offend as a way of expressing criticism and disagreement. Within certain boundaries, this is a legally protected mainstay of democratic pluralism. As such, it can be seen as an end in itself. But whether this form of expression helps protect democracy from extremist views or sometimes ends up empowering those views is a different question.
Photo License: CC0 Public Domain.