The times we live in, with their Trumps, Putins and Erdogans, are screaming for satire.
Political satire is a traditional cornerstone of the annual Rose Monday parades, with tens of thousands of people attending the street carnival in many countries.
In 2020, the satirical floats have become even more political than usual. Trump’s politics have come in for their fair share of mockery, as has the Brexit morass and far-right politicians of a variety of colours.
While they aim at ruffling many feathers, every year, carnival also flares up a debate about ulterior motives.
The Aalst Carnival, a centuries-old event in central Belgium long known for mocking public figures, has in recent years been accused of parading derogatory depictions of Jews. Over the weekend, the parade included caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, obsessed with money and dressed up like insects.
The European Commission slammed the Belgian street parade on Monday (24 February) for featuring anti-Semitic floats, saying they were “incompatible” with EU values.
So what, then, is satire allowed to do?
Satire was and is a fine measuring instrument that can be used to read the degree of freedom of a society.
German writer and publicist Kurt Tucholsky, a lauded satirist of the Weimar Republic who anticipated the brutality of the Third Reich, asked himself this question almost a century ago, in 1919: Was darf Satire?
His answer was “Everything!” But with an important limitation, which is unfortunately always overlooked:” Nowhere does the characterless reveal itself more quickly than here (in satire)…”.
Satire should and must strike, if it means to be effective. It needs provocation, exaggeration, putting a finger in the wound to denounce or ridicule conditions and events, it must break the taboo. It must hurt, not through senseless insults, but through harsh, accurate criticism.
This is a great asset of freedom of expression, for which people have fought for centuries. The same freedom of expression that came into danger again after the attacks on the French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” five years ago.
But satirists walk a fine line and should choose their destination carefully. Satire shouldn’t defame or violate personality rights, or aim at the weak.
But we should think about learning from Tucholsky.
Is all that presents itself as satire satirical? And is satire really allowed to do ‘anything’, even if it serves only as a cover for political provocation, malice or insult? If everyone is supposed to be equal before the law, satire – to conclude with Tucholsky – must abide by criminal law.
How we perceive satire is a subjective human reaction. One either laughs about it, rejects it or takes it to court. There is no question that those who, under the guise of satire, only aim to insult or slander, must be aware that they could be prosecuted.
Carnival should not be apolitical, but what is exactly allowed remains controversial.
Last year, the carnival in Aalst also caused outrage with anti-Semitic depictions. As a result, UNESCO removed the festival from its World Heritage list – a drastic move that seems to have changed little.
“The Aalst Carnival must stay the Aalst Carnaval and laugh with everything and everyone. You don’t always get that explained abroad, but this is not an anti-Semitic manifestation. Censorship is not appropriate here,” Minister-President of Flanders, Jan Jambon (Flemish-nationalist N-VA), told Belgian media. In Aalst, he is seen by many as a hero of freedom for satire.
For many others, international observers and organisations, with repeating the display of last year, the organisers in Aalst, demonstrated not only lack of historical awareness, but racism and bad taste, especially displaying anti-Jewish clichés a few weeks after the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust was commemorated in Europe.
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Views are the author’s