Saturday, April 16, 2016

Merkel's Teufelspakt Comes Home to Roost

Boy, that didn't last long, did it?  Usually Faust gets at least a few decades of grand living before the devil comes to collect his wages. In this case, the EU and NATO's refugee deal with Turkey-- which has converted open asylum reception centers into detention camps and interdicted and returned asylum seekers without a fair hearing -- is scarcely a month old, and already Erdogan has convinced Merkel to prosecute a German satirist for making fun of him in a mildly ribald way. Erdogan, whose feelings were genuinely hurt, I am sure, has criminalized opposition journalism in his own country -- a practice he means to export to Europe, it would seem -- mounted military campaigns that led to widespread civilian casualties in the Kurdish region, and shuttered Turkey's borders to Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives from the civil war (the only thing open about Turkey's current borders, in fact, is open fire; in the characteristically laconic opening injunction of a recent Human Rights Watch article: "Turkey should stop shooting at Syrian civilians fleeing fighting[.]" I'll say!) Yet it was not one of these actions, but rather a poem on a Daily Show-esque German comedy channel that accused Erdogan of, among other things, performing sex acts on a goat, that the Turkish deputy prime minister recently deemed a "serious crime against humanity" that demanded retribution. One assumes that Donald Trump is pricking up two porcine ears in interest somewhere. The man who has stated his intention to "open up American libel laws" must really be digging Erdogan's style.

Okay, so this is typical. This is how the world works for a certain type of powerful and narcissistic person: "My pain is real; your pain is not." But why should Merkel pay the slightest attention to it, let alone take the bizarre step of announcing at a press conference that her government intends to prosecute the comedian, Jan Böhmermann?  Well, that's where our Mephistophelean bargain comes into play. Merkel-- and many other Western leaders -- have colluded to convert a previously open set of reception centers on Greek islands in the Aegean into barbed-wire fenced enclosures, where asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere are denied asylum screening and not informed of the reasons for their detention, before they are eventually shipped back to Turkey to god knows what fate. I think it would not be overly cynical to see a connection between Merkel's announcement of the prosecution and the desire on the part of EU leaders to placate Turkey so as to keep using it in this way as an indefinite purgatory for asylum seekers. It seems a more plausible explanation of her actions, at any rate, than to see in them a reflection purely of Merkel's strange preference for an obscure section of the German penal code over the unambiguous free speech protections of the EU Convention on Human Rights, to which Germany is a party.

Oh, Europe. Remember all that marching and demonstrating all of your leaders did after the Charlie Hebdo attacks? Well, before we get too surprised at the contrast between then and now, let's not forget that the marching was more than a little disingenuous at the time of the Hebdo atrocity as well. Shortly after -- or even while-- the French authorities were loudly attesting that free expression is a fundamental element of their society and political identity, let us recall, police were rounding up and imprisoning French Muslims on charges of "glorifying terrorism"-- which could mean just about anything, and which is more or less the same legal basis on which the current ruling regime in Ethiopia locks up its opposition figures (an excellent model for how to suppress one's Muslim minorities). You'll recall that at the time of the Charlie Hebdo murders, there was much written -- some of it by yours truly-- about the double standard displayed by segments of the multicultural left who failed to condemn the attacks adequately or to stand up for the important point that the Hebdo writers were trying to make -- all of which remains a fair observation, in my view. But may the heavens cry out against me if I do not notice and condemn the other obvious double standard at play here as well-- the one that says that Muslims accused of "glorifying terrorism" should receive fewer free speech protections than satirists who depict Muhammad, or that says it is illegal to make Rabelaisian hash of an autocrat so long as he is the convenient ruler of a transit country who is currently barring a vast and mostly Muslim refugee population from reaching safety in Europe.

There can be no excuse for Merkel's decision to prosecute Böhmermann, nor for the Teufelspakt that has motivated it. One can only add as a mitigating factor that no other Western government has a particular right to look down their noses at either Merkel or Erdogan when it comes to the refugee issue. When Erdogan points to the 2.7 million refugees who are currently living in Turkey, and asks why far more wealthy and spacious countries than his are refusing to take in a couple thousand, he is speaking the truth. As for Merkel, you will recall how for month after month she kept her borders open to tens of thousands of people in need, as each European government along the migration route refused to lift a finger to help, but rather set about trying to seal their own borders, transport asylum seekers rapidly toward Germany, or otherwise divest themselves of responsibility. You will also have observed that the United States, despite being separated by an ocean from Europe's asylum crisis, and despite not having absorbed any very substantial Syrian refugee population at all, has been rocked by one of the most bizarre and terrifying escalations of xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric in recent memory at the mere suggestion that some few thousand refugees might arrive on our shores. One can hardly think of more conspicuously glass-made structures from which to lob stones of moral criticism. So yes, Merkel's and Erdogan's deplorable recent decisions are not their faults alone, by any means, but are the responsibility of safe countries everywhere that could have done their share to uphold the human right to asylum.

It might all have been different, and could yet be different. There is nowadays an almost universal belief that the "migration crisis" is insoluble, but the truth is that the 1 million refugees who arrived in Europe have entered an aging continent with a declining population in many areas and over 700 million people in it in total already. I should think there is room for an additional population of less than .2% of that amount, thank you very much! And there would be even more room if the United States didn't panic at the specter of "ISIS agents" being squirreled away like contraband in the refugee population every time the subject was broached (by the way, the same spooky rhetoric about secret "Nazi spies" was part of what defeated the few attempts that were made in the U.S. in the 1930s to shelter Jewish refugees from the approaching Holocaust-- go figure).

Friends, there is in fact room enough in these fair pastures for people who are at risk of being tortured or bombed or imprisoned or killed if they are sent back to their countries of origin. The only question is whether there's room enough in our fainting and failing hearts. That's the choice involved here.

We will decide this matter as we will. If there's one thing that the Böhmermann prosecution proves, however, it's that we don't get to have it both ways. We can keep our free speech, and our recognition of the right to asylum under international law, and the whole rest of the package that preserves basic human rights. But if we start trading away bits and pieces -- by means, let's say, of policies that turn back refugees at our doors -- the devil will eventually return to harvest his due.


On a different note... I've noticed that even the writing that has taken Böhmermann's side in the legal dispute at issue here still has this weird tendency to preface the whole discussion with a statement that "the poem is clearly offensive and insulting" or something to that effect. This sudden conversion of the world press into shrinking violets is rather curious. I'm a pretty thoroughgoing prude myself, and the poem is certainly not my sense of humor -- no more so than the more scabrous contents of Charlie Hebdo or Larry Flynt's old caricatures of Jerry Falwell -- but "offensive"? Certainly it seems to have offended Erdogan, but that seems all to the good. So, in a spirit of solidarity with anyone who manages to épater the Erdogans and Trumps and Putins of the world, I offer some selections from the poem via my own Google Translate. Here are some of the insults that apparently so shocked the conscience of the world:
Erdogan's breath smells like pizza.
So that even a pig's fart is nicer.
He likes to fuck goats and oppress minorities.
At night he performs fellatio on 100 sheep.
Erdogan is a president with a small penis.
His head is as empty as his balls.

... I guess now I'll have to be extradited to Germany.

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