In Praise of Folly
ROSENMONTAG, Germany MARCH 2, 2017 — If it were not so tragic, it would be comical. That might be one way of reflecting on current political developments. But then, perhaps the best way to deal with the tragic, as Shakespeare has taught us, is to turn to comedy: to use it, especially in the form of ridicule, as a weapon against those characters who would lead us to doom with their insane political designs.
In Germany, the tradition of political carnival goes back centuries, in Mainz, for example, it reaches back to the Napoleonic period, more than 200 years ago. In the days preceding Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins, carnival clubs throughout the country organize festive gatherings, where thousands of citizens, including prominent public figures, put on extravagant costumes and enjoy an evening of high-level political cabaret. No holds are barred. In this, known as the “fifth season” of the year, in which the “fools”—in the Shakespearean or Erasmian sense — reign, everything and anything is allowed. What no editorialist or news commentator would dream of putting into words any other time during the year, now is not only permitted but celebrated and cheered. Mainz and Cologne, both arch Catholic cities, represent the oldest and richest carnival culture, and every year their televised celebrations are followed by millions of viewers. Cabaret artists rise to the podium and hold their carnival speeches, traditionally composed in humorous couplets and aimed at figures in the public domain.
Then on Rosenmontag, the Monday before Mardi Gras, the carnival fools take to the public streets, as cities like Mainz and Cologne (but not only) play host to parades that conquer the main avenues and squares for the entire holiday. Here it is the creative floats that dominate the scene.
This year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the star of the show. Or almost. Given the relation of forces between superpowers and lesser allies, one should have expected this to be the case. President Donald Trump, who was making his debut not only in Washington but also in carnival this year, was for sure the number one attraction, both in the carnival gatherings and the parades. Every session had its own German Eric Baldwin counterpart, who would huff and puff and bring the house down. And every one had its message to the new US President and to the man in power in Ankara. To both it was a clear challenge to their megalomaniacal delusions, and a courageous defense of freedom in all those forms guaranteed by the constitutions of both the US and Germany.
In Germany, the issue of freedom of expression has become a flash point in relations with Turkey, especially since a German comedian presented a poem deemed offensive to Erdogan on television, and the Turkish president reacted with a legal suit (http://www.mirrorspectator.com/2016/04/14/turkey-asks-germany-to-prosecute-comedian-over-erdogan-poem). Now the issue has become even more explosive, since a German journalist of Turkish descent Deniz Yücel, who writes for Die Welt, was detained in Turkey on suspicion of support for a terrorist organization. In the carnival evening in Mainz, one cabaret “fool”, dressed in the garb of a Catholic churchman, railed against Erdogan and then concluded with a provocative note: Erdogan, take me to court!
It was on the streets that the challenge to the Sultan on the Bosporus was most eloquent. Three floats in the different parades captured public attention. One showed Erdogan seated on mobile lawnmower (you know, the kind used probably to keep the golf greens tidy), happily mowing down domains identified by signs as “freedom of opinion” and “democracy.” Another showed Erdogan as a wild-eyed sultan, lashing out at an utterly harmless, small carnival figure. Interesting is that instead of “Erdogan,” the name given on the float is “Erdowahn,” a play on words: “Wahn” in German means madness. The other large float showed Erdogan seated, and he is painting a building. It looks like a villa, at least there, where he is working; but, since the float is very long, one sees that the other half of the building is a prison. The image pits Erdogan’s 1000-room presidential palace against the reality of Turkish prisons, in which God knows how many innocent citizens are being detained.
The Narcissist’s Dilemma
How Erdogan will react to the robust treatment he has received from Germany’s carnival culture this year is an open question. He could, of course, choose to bring law suits for defamation against those who have ridiculed him. Any attempt to use diplomatic channels to punish or silence those responsible would be met with rejection and then more ridicule. In Germany, as opposed to Turkey, freedom of opinion and of the press, as guaranteed by the constitution, is also respected.
But perhaps all this is totally off the mark. Perhaps the greatest pain that Erdogan is suffering is not as a result of the fact that he has been so comically abused by German comedians and carnival fools. Perhaps more offensive to his narcissistic self is the fact that on the streets of Germany’s carnival cities he has had to play second fiddle to that American infidel currently occupying the White House.