There was a brilliant moment in one of the presidential debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama where Mr. Romney was trying to lambast President Obama for being out of touch with the needs of the American military. Mitt Romney had made an impressive showing in the first debate, and Obama seemed to need a touch-up lesson in debating if he was going to secure reelection. Obama, in response to Romney’s critique that Obama would cut military spending and reduce the military’s size, pounced. Our military is smaller than it was in 1960 because “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Obama also patronizes Romney and starts describing military equipment to him as if Romney were 7 years old. You can watch it here.
I’ve long thought that the only way to win, rhetorically, against the radical and extreme rights (although, let’s be clear, Romney is not – compared to Trump – that radical or extreme) is to be funny. Funny, silly, ridiculous, albern, doof – whatever you want to call it. Trying to debate irrational and empty claims with reason is absurd.
Whether Frauke Petry or Donald Trump, the only thing they have on offer are patronizing, authoritarian commentary and a hot temper.
Last Friday, the Kinder (Children) chocolate brand unveiled a new series of packaging that was a masterful marketing ploy to advertise for the European Soccer Championship. The standard packaging shows a blond child as the face of the brand. But somehow, Kinder managed to get childhood pictures of members of the national German soccer team and issued a special edition of the chocolate bars with players like Götze, Schürrle, Kramer – and Gündogan (who has Turkish roots) and Boateng (who has Ghanian roots, and whose brother plays for the Ghanian national team). You can see the video here.
PEGIDA adherents hated it. They posted disparaging comments on Facebook which were taken down by Ferrero, the Italian owner of Kinder.
But PEGIDA, whose leader Lutz Bachmann, was recently convicted on charges of inciting the people, now just looks a little bit “silly,” as the Washington Post and Stern have reported. Not only were Facebook users not having all this disparaging talk, but hundreds of Twitter followers have posted pictures of themselves as children under the hashtag #cutesolidarity, started by Zeit reporter Mohamed Amjahid:
Translated: #cutesolidarity is an antiracist mini-campaign against Pegida and AfD, who spread hate. In constrast, we don’t just win soccer tournaments [by playing] together.
The pictures posted under the hashtag normalize childhood, which is one of the most effective antiracist visual strategies I’ve seen in a long time. Humor helps. The childlike playfulness of this campaign is a strong antidote to the constant temper tantrums of the far-right.
There’s a lot going on, as always, in European politics. Germany has proposed an “integration law” to be enacted later this month. Lutz Bachmann has provisionally been found guilty of inciting the people, a verdict many thought would not materialize and which has yet to be enacted. Austria has elected a far-right chancellor after Werner Faymann, Angela Merkel’s right hand man who helped open the borders last September, abruptly resigned. In Idomeni, tear gas was used against refugees trying to push a train through a border fence. Thousands are still trapped in Greece, and more arrive in Italy daily. Dr. Frauke Petry keeps talking.
But there are some amazing pieces of work being produced in these times.
This radio documentary produced for ARD by Thomas Gaevert, which was produced last September, is called “Wer ist das Volk?” or “Who is the people?” Through interviews with former East German guestworkers, primarily from Vietnam and Mozambique, he seeks to find historical continuity between the rhetoric used in the former East to describe foreign workers and the persistence of this rhetoric about foreigners in the paroles of the PEGIDA movement.
The folks at wirmachendas.jetzt have such an impressive array of projects that one can get lost in their mix of reportage, reviews and services. The website has an English tab, and one of the aesthetic projects that is highly innovative is the Syrian Mobile Films Festival, which recently had a screening in BOX.Freiraum in Berlin. Building on the use of mobile phone cameras in the Arab protest movements, the Syrian Mobile Films Festival moves throughout Syria and other locations to encourage professional directors and amateurs to make low-budget films with phones. This group also offers the “pixel” training program for emerging young directors through grants and awards.
The mission statement of the SMFF states that it “seeks to present free and different cinematic vision, a vision believes that the higher accuracy image is not necessarily the most clearness one.”
Finally, Idil Baydar has written this piece for ZEIT MAGAZIN, the glossy magazine of the weekly politics and arts newspaper Die Zeit. In it, she performs the code-switching which made her famous as the character Jilet Ayse, whom I blogged about here.
My dream is that we stop blowing smoke. Instead we should finally show young people more respect, recognition and attention. That’s what we call empowerment, it’s real cool, but most Germans don’t know about it. Valla haram Almanya, I swear, that’s not cool, Germany!
She also distinguishes between the freedom of speech and crossing the line to impose discriminatory rule:
You get it? You don’t get nothing? The Jilet in me would say: ok, I’m talking slowly and clearly with you. Pegida can walk to Germania and back, but please, please don’t determine how we, the majority in this beautiful country, should live with each other. Germany, you’re doing AfD, upper limit and stuff. I have solution! We make with you welcoming-kültür workshop, totally da bomb, valla! Chill your life, Germany! Then you be ok, too.
About four years ago, the Berliner Werkstatt der Kulturen hosted a reading by the editors and contributors of the encyclopedia project Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht (How Racism Speaks through Words). The bar area of the theater and gallery was packed – people were sitting on the floor, or uncomfortably close on some of the seats and couches, and a variety of contributors placed at microphones around the room read from their entries on words like “race” and “integration” and “foreigner.” The book was available for something like 40 or 50 Euros, and you got your money’s worth: this volume is truly encyclopedic, weighing in at several pounds and several hundred pages. The Werkstatt der Kulturen, the long-standing organizers of the Carneval of Cultures parade and contest in Berlin, had long been a location for topics of race, racism and difference. In light of the Sarrazin debates, the WdK had hosted three panel discussions about race hosted by Michel Friedmann in late 2010 with guests ranging from Shermin Langhoff, artistic director at that time of the Ballhaus Naunynstraße, Naika Foroutan and Kien Nghi Ha, social scientists working on these questions, and Nadja Afouatey-Alazard, the co-editor of this volume with Susan Arndt and a filmmaker and academic in her own right.
An association of journalists called Neue Deutsche Medienmacherhas now undertaken a similar project on a smaller scale and directed specifically at journalists. They define their project on their website as follows:
“As journalists we work every day with our tool: language. Our reports are supposed to present the facts correctly, without judgment, and with precision. Frequently, however, words like “immigrant” or “migrant” stand alongside each other in the same text with the assumption that these words mean the same thing. They don’t.”
The NDM has commissioned the comedian Jilet Ayse to perform satirical riffs on various entries in this glossary. In the most recent episode, Ayse defines “Armutszuwanderer” (loosely translated: poverty immigrants; those who are driven to emigrate due to poverty; “Wirtschaftsflüchtling” is another version of this term commonly translated as “economic migrant”).
Ayse’s character for these videos wears a poofed, bleached blong pompadour, with massive (and probably heavy!) hoop earrings, and her trademark t-shirt which says “WALLAH: Ich habe nix gemacht.” Each episode features her sitting on her couch, reading and getting irritated by the journalistic tropes transmitted by unconscious language use. Her performance hinges on the cliche, and subverts the critique of the media she enacts through dialect. Speaking fluent, but strongly accented German, her stereotype of a Berliner of Turkish descent sets her character up as the target of various debates in Germany about the integration of immigrants by encouraging them to master German. That Ayse uses this “imperfect” German to critique the language politics of the German mainstream is a beautiful subversion of the stereotype Ayse inhabits.
What I find really interesting about her performances is the way that they create discomfort through anger. The intensity of her performances fit well within the YouTube genre: this energy is unsustainable for long periods of time. The persona that she has created, because it is a parody of urban youth, plays with racist stereotypes – and that can be dangerous if one privileges appearances over content. This particular video focuses on the irony of calling refugees or immigrants “Armutszuwanderer.” In a moment at the beginning, Ayse calls out the racist undertones of this term and insists on recognizing a politics of self-identification: “They’re called Roma. You don’t need to make economic migrants out of them. They’re called Roma.” Ayse’s character is designed to play with the grostesque; she exaggerates on purpose. “Do you think they come here to be poor in Germany? Are you serious?” Ayse demands. Answering her own questions, she questions the motives of politicians who seek to exclude or devalue the potential contributions to society these immigrants could make: “You should call them work migrants, they come here to work!” Ayse ends by making fun of herself: although she has read the academic redefinition of the term from the glossary with no problem before flipping back into an exaggerated dialect, she makes fun of her character’s supposed Bildungsferne (distance from education) by tripping over the term “Bruttosozialprodukt” (Gross National Product). “Du kannst froh sein, wenn sie kommen, und arbeiten, weil sie machen der sozi-prod-brutto-produkt- SIE MACHEN GUT, ok?” (You can be happy when they come and work, because they make the g-g-g: THEY DO GOOD,OK?) She ends with a button, by reading once again from the glossary: turns out this migration is often profitable for Germany. She drops the booklet like an MC would drop a mike, opening up her arms and saying: “Live with it.”
Jörg Lau, a journalist on immigration and diversity for Die Zeit, already had “discovered” Jilet Ayse back in 2011 when she produced a YouTube video called “Ey, isch bin so sauer!” Lau called her a “Genius” in his blog posting. In that earlier video, Ayse does a similar character who hits much harder: this woman uses the stereotype of a loud, defiant woman who goes on and on about how perfect her life is while recounting obvious scenes of domestic abuse. The combination of toughness with obvious trauma is difficult to watch, and yet manages to illustrate both the costs of domestic abuse as well as the patronizing behaviors of social workers and possibly feminists intent on dialogue (represented in this video by an invisible sister who is dating a German man lacking the masculinity Ayse wants).
Language matters, but language is more than just words. The exaggerated emotion Ayse portrays here enacts an important element of debates about racism: those who hold dominant power within a society are the only ones who can talk about race as if it is an academic concern. Race matters; racism hurts. It’s visceral.