Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The New Cartoon Crisis?

"Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:"
Hamlet

Irony is sometimes tragic in its proportions. Some of you may recall that when a group of ambassadors from Muslim countries asked the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to do something about the offensive cartoons that had been printed in a major newspaper, he said that he would have to stay out of it. The PM can't go around criticizing the exercise of free speech.

Well, this morning we can read the Prime Minister's review of his perhaps most famous caricaturist, Roald Als, who has collected his cartoons in a book. Apparently our PM can participate in the media hype surrounding a book launch, by offering some good-natured ribbing for the occasion. In his review, he thanks Als for sharpening his "brand".

I think this is outrageous. When foreign ambassadors object to the sense of humour expressed by a national newspaper, instead of denouncing the cartoons (like many other Western leaders), our Prime Minister condescendingly explains to them that "in a free country" the nation's leader cannot comment on the editorial decisions of the press. But when it's not the sentiments of unwanted foreigners that are at stake, there is apparently no problem. Here he even notes (i.e., criticizes) the cartoonist's bias towards Anker Jørgensen, a long-reigning social democrat from the recent past.

But there is something even stranger, even more embarrassing. Als has a copy-writer and "sparring partner" named Poul Einer Hansen. Funny thing about these two white guys: Als affectionately calls Hansen his "nigger". Fogh notes this in passing, chuckling along with them between dashes. And Politiken (the newspaper that publishes both Als's cartoons and Fogh's review, and is the publisher of Als's book) gives this word a prominent place. The editorial summary of the article mentions it. And it is used under the illustration of the cartoonist and his n...

Argh!!! I know a lot of my countrymen will object to this outburst. He didn't say "nigger", he said "neger", they will say, arguably translatable as "negro". I leave it up to you to decide whether my translation is correct.

Though it is not entirely out of circulation, it is an outdated expression. It is offensive because ... and it is surprising that this needs explaining ... it makes a joke of slavery. Our blindness to this is one of the interesting and unfunny effects of the layers and layers of irony that serves as a kind ersatz national culture in Denmark. (Kierkegaard's first major work, his masters thesis, let us remember, was called On the Concept of Irony).

Let's see how it works here: One very white guy (Danes are ethnically very, very white) says, "He's my neger," referring to another white guy. At the first and most literal level, it means "he's my black guy". Since he's white, that's, you know, "ironic". So what truth is he expressing with this falshood? Well, he's obviously saying "He's my slave". But that's "ironic" too because, you know, there's no slavery in Denmark. One level further down, then, he's saying "he's my little helper; he does what I tell him to do; he's an obseqious little friend". But, no wait, he actually has great respect for him and they are equal partners. Okay, so that is ultimately what he meant.

In this age of political incorrectness there is that last irony. Isn't "neger" a racist term? Oh yes, the stock answer goes, of course, but racism is obviously wrong, so when we use racist terms we "must be joking". In this case everyone is careful to put that little word in scare quotes every time it is used. Sorry, my fellow Danes, this just ain't good enough. Our irony has become a "heavy-headed revel east and west" and we do better to honour our custom for it in the breach.

Thine evermore, whilst this machine is to him,
HAMLET.


PS In a hundred years we will no doubt praise the moderation of our friends by calling them "Muslim". We are, sadly, to the manner born.

[Update: I am told that one established sense of "neger", especially in journalistic circles, is "ghostwriter", i.e., someone who does work for which someone else takes credit. It can be argued that this usage is based on an implicit critique of slavery. Als is not saying (with irony) "he does what I tell him" but (with somewhat less irony) "I take the credit for his efforts". There is still something unfunny about this, though. And certainly something unbecoming of a prime minister.]

8 comments:

Kirby Olson said...

There is no slavery at present in Denmark today but in the Danish Virgin Islands it did exist, right?

I couldn't figure out all the characters in your post, but would like to say, that I am against humor generally, except when I am for it.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, until 1848. As I recall, it took us awhile to apologize for the business as well. Our reluctance to apologize, like our penchant for irony, stems from our need to cultivate our innocence.

Kirby Olson said...

Kierkegaard's Regina Olsen was the Danish ambasssador to the VI's wife.

Did Kierkegaard discuss slavery?

Thomas Basbøll said...

Not to my knowledge. One would hope he'd be against it. But I don't know enough about racism in Denmark in his time. (In the early 20th century, I think, Africans and Chinese were put on display in Tivoli). If S.K. did not recognize the slaves as "human", his philosophical views would not apply.

Even then ... he wasn't too interested in social justice (not wholly uninterested either, though.) He didn't see the point of democracy, or even free speech.

I'm simplifying a bit. My point is that the sort of "rights" you need to endorse in order to denounce slavery don't, to my mind, flow naturally from an existentialist position.

I could be wrong about this.

Anonymous said...

A "Negro" is time-honoured Danish journalist slang for a ghost-writer and is being used as such by the cartoonist (if not refered with this understanding by the PM).

Thomas Basbøll said...

That's true. In this sense, "He's my negro" means "I take credit for his efforts". But making sense of that also only makes sense because of the association to slavery, and, obviously, to race.

In Denmark, there is a time honoured slang way of talking about "Helping the starving people of Africa", which also recently came up in public: "We're sending money to the negroes."

At the deepest level, I think, the problem has to do with associating skin colour and social status. A word like "black" refers directly to colour. A word like "negro" (and especially in the metaphorical usage we are talking about here) retains the reference to skin colour and combines it with a social trait. We then have a racial category.

Irony and metaphor depends on the primary sense of the word being used. It is that primary sense that embarrasses me, and that is unbecoming of us on the international stage.

Yiore said...

Albeit dark and obscure, the history regarding the Danish Institution of African slavery in the DWI is an issue which has given to much debate and discussion in recent years.

A brief review of the historical record will reveal that for over 175 years Danes purchased, enslaved, trafficked, and sold human beings in what is today Ghana on the west coast of Africa and in the Danish West Indies (DWI) and beyond.

A prevailing view of this history documents that during the period of the Danish West Indies, Denmark owned, occupied, and administrated the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix – the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) of today. Between the years 1673 and 1848, more than 200,000 African men, women, and children were removed by Danish and Norwegian slave ships from their from lands, languages, cultures, traditions, families, occupations, institutions of learning, dietary habits, standards of health, God, and spirituality, and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the DWI through the horror of the middle passage. These people were forced to endure their lives as chattel governed by racist policies like the 19 statute 1733 Philip Gardelin Code and bound to the brutality of harsh plantation labor – with no accompanying wages. However, half those displaced by Denmark and destined for the islands' shores were not as fortunate. More than 100,000 Africans tragically perished during the dreadful journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Un-repaired by the sale of the DWI in 1917 to the United States, today’s Virgin Islanders are yet to recover from the cultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic underdevelopment imposed by the eras of Danish slavery and colonization. Since that time, questioned has been the morality of the treaty entered into by the two (2) colonizing nations that governed the 1917 session of the Danish West Indies; and, more recently the legality of the sale of title by Denmark and its purchase by the United States is being challenged citing violations of fundamental human rights and the sale of people, which until today continue to impede social advancement in this non self-governing, “Unincorporated” U.S. territory. For example, the treaty document distinguishes between “citizens” as Danes and “inhabitants” as African descendants and demonstrates absolutely no consultation with the latter, nor grants any rights and privileges to this group of people. This neglect of the Virgin Islander’s inalienable human right to self-determination during the sale of the islands and the years which followed is reminiscent of the slavery-era sale and exploitation of African peoples and remains an international human rights violation of the worst sort.

With the institution of slavery ending in the Danish colony in 1848, and in the United States in 1863, how then are the sale, purchase, and/or cession of more than 100,000 “free” people justified generations later? Which nation is responsible for repair? Who will bear the still-lingering, inevitable burden of decolonization? These issues and questions still linger and today impede development in the USVI.

African-Caribbean Reparations said...

But, just as Virgin Islanders were bestowed a continuing legacy of human tragedy, during this time Denmark would also inherit a legacy of racism which would extend past the Africans they enslaved in the 19th century and affect the Danish homeland into the 20th and 21st centuries. Many people firmly believe that the historical racism left unaddressed is the root causes of the epidemic of racism currently appearing in Europe and the Scandinavian countries. Likewise, the historical human tragedy unaddressed in the DWI serves as a major impediment to poverty reduction and social development in the USVI. Without question, and in this regard, both the USVI and Danish societies today have urgent need of repair. It is important in the 21st century that we collectively fashion a humanity far removed from the ills of the past. It is this principle that must undergird any approach to reparations.

While it will require great vision, courage, and a profound sense of humanity to examine the history of one’s own nation and to determine how its development has impaired the development of other peoples and cultures, and to make amends where necessary, the former DWI remain encouraged by a speech delivered at the tenth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council by the Honorable Danish Foreign Minister, Dr. Per Stig Møller in Geneva on Tuesday 3 March 2009, in which he remarked “where human rights violations occur, we stand ready to consider how the situation is best and most efficiently addressed with dialogue and cooperation as our preferred tools.” In all humility, it is such expressed commitment to the protection and preservation of humanity that, when applied strategically in the case of the DWI, will lend itself to a successful Danish example of peace and reconciliation and the addressing of slavery-era wrongs.