"Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:"
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Though it is not entirely out of circulation, it is an outdated expression.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,
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.]