I have returned. I spent the summer having some incredible experiences, and some profound conversations, across India and Indonesia. Some of you will have followed these events via my Facebook page, and I am going to be sharing some highlights and some reports on media developments there on this blog in the weeks ahead. But, for now, I am playing catch up with some developments while I have been away.
Moritz Fink, an expert on culture jamming, who has contributed to this blog in the past, shared with me this insightful post about the ways the Greek crisis has been depicted via comedy news and memes and I wanted to share this analysis here as we continue to focus on the interplay between news, politics, and participatory culture. Enjoy!
F for Fake (in the Second Order)
Yanis Varoufakis, the Germans, and the Middle Finger That Wasn’t There
by Moritz Fink
On July 5, 2015, the people of Greece were asked in a democratic referendum whether they would accept the terms imposed by the European Union to receive another tranche of desperately needed euros. The outcome was an overwhelming oxi (“no”), which, indeed, may mark a caesura in the ongoing European economic crisis. On the other hand, it seemed to be but another act (although most people considered it the very climax) in a series of political decision-making documented by the news week by week: an arrival of optimistically smiling politicians at European crisis summits and a departure of the same after long hours of discussion without any specific results. We all have seen these scenes a dozen times and followed them in an almost routine manner.
The summits have become rituals — for the protagonists, as for the journalists and commentators, as for the people at home in front of their TV sets. It’s a political daily soap opera starring, on one side, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and her Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, French President François Hollande, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Playing opposite these leaders is the Greek delegation: Prime Minister Alexis Zipras, representing the Syriza left-wing government elected earlier this year, and, until recently, his charismatic finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis — plus, oddly enough, Mr. Varoufakis’s middle finger (both symbolically as well as literally).
For the news industry, a figure such as Varoufakis is a great character. Varoufakis, a post-Marxist Professor of Economics, presented himself as an unconventional and combative politician. His narcissistic ego undoubtedly enjoyed the image amplified by the mainstream media, and thus Varoufakis became the irreverent and overconfident bad boy perfectly suited for dramatizing the business of politics as well as polarizing (that is, entertaining) the “audience.”
Although he publicly promoted the government’s oxi-stance, Varoufakis resigned as Minister of Finance after the 5th July referendum. According to his version of the events, he left office because he “was made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted ‘partners’” that no agreement could be reached between the European creditors and the Greece government as long as he held office.[i] While the negotiations may perhaps be easier without Varoufakis, the news media already misses him, as Varoufakis readily provided the headlines journalists seek to write (in fact, the continuing media interest in Varoufakis after his resignation confirms this thesis). Varoufakis’s rhetorical style is certainly ambiguous: offering powerful vocabulary and images, he has become infamous for denying any controversial statement that had been attributed to him. Typically, Varoufakis would propose bold ideas about how to better the economic situation of Greece, but could not refrain from garnishing these proposals with intellectual hubris or even offensive remarks (of which his middle finger has become but the symbolic peak).
Yet, it wasn’t merely his role as controversial politician that made Varoufakis the media’s “darling” — as the crazy-but-smart, good-looking rock ’n’ roll politician. Of course, Varoufakis himself fueled this image by exuding a glamorous high-society aura as intellectual star and man of the world, jet-setting between his professional life as bestseller-author and professor of economics, and his political life as Greek parliamentarian.
Indeed, Varoufakis’s eccentric style and celebrity status made him not only a catchy figure for “serious” journalists (featured in such illustrious formats as the French lifestyle magazine Paris Match), but also a great vehicle and poster boy for political satire.
Fig. 1. Fan-created image in the form of a movie poster which satirically depicts the dispute between Germany (represented by Angela Merkel) and Greece (represented by Yanis Varoufakis), posted on http://fuckyeahyanisvaroufakis.tumblr.com.
As the popularity of TV shows like The Daily Show or Colbert Report indicates, satire today plays an important role in how citizens perceive and evaluate the political establishment.[ii] And not only on TV: the meme culture of Internet has become a major tool for its users to articulate their own voices, which often blend politics with pop culture in satirical forms of media productions.[iii] In fact, what has become subsumed under the hashtag #varoufake demonstrates the vitality of satire in the age of media convergence. The hashtag refers to a satirical stunt that unfolded through various media channels, a stunt that somehow wasn’t planned and nevertheless appeared to be a grandiose satirical scheme.
All of this started with a parodic music video clip titled V for Varoufakis produced by Jan Böhmermann, host of the German comedy late night show Neo Magazin Royale, and his team in late February 2015. The clip featured Böhmermann as a parody rock star à la Jack Black. Standing in front of a microphone in Freddy Mercury‑esque fashion, complete with mustache and melodramatic pose, Böhmermann sings about the “German angst” during the times of the European crisis. The video is interspersed with representations of “Germans,” portrayed in folkloristic dirndl-look and military uniforms reminiscent of the Second World War (in part, a self-ironic turn on populist anti-German sentiments that have emerged in Greece, which articulated itself, for instance, through placards depicting Angela Merkel as Adolf Hitler).
Much of the comedy of V for Varoufakis derives from its ironic portrayal of German stereotypes which are put in relation to the current economic crisis in Europe, in particular in relation to Europe’s problem child, Greece. Germans are assiduous and fearless, the narrative of the video says, but become anxious about Greece’s unruly behavior personified by Yanis Varoufakis, the “Minister of Awesome.” Varoufakis has indeed worked hard to cultivate his image of being a renegade politician unintimidated by Germany as Europe’s hegemon. The Minister suggested that he would be an unconventional and tough “cool” guy who arrives at official meetings with “jacket collar raised” and “on a black motorbike,” as Böhmermann puts it in the song before entering the chorus with the bridge line, “He puts the ‘hell’ in Hellenic and wants to take our pride.”
Aside from what are apparently re-enactments in which Varoufakis is mimicked by an anonymous double, the video contains original footage showing the Greek Finance Minister with jacket collar raised and on a motorbike. The whole clip reflects a style of “radical scavenging,” as Christof Decker calls practices of alternative documentary filmmaking where the “re-editing and assemblage of television (and film) outtakes [is] used for the construction of alternative histories.”[iv]
Böhmermann’s parodic take on Varoufakis has indeed conjured up such an alternative history, yet probably in a different way than he and his team had intended. An outstanding detail of V for Varoufakis is footage where we see Varoufakis at a public performance mentioning the words “stick the finger to Germany”; at this, we see him giving the middle finger to the camera. “Hilarious!” Böhmermann might have thought. The scene perfectly captures the humor of the whole clip. “How dare he?” many television viewers were wondering two weeks later, however, as the aforementioned scene was blended in on Günther Jauch, for several years the most popular political talk show in Germany. (Günther Jauch airs Sunday nights, right after the primetime crime series Tatort, a program slot that guarantees high ratings.)[v]
The topic on Jauch that evening was Greece and the economic crisis in Europe. Even Varoufakis joined the discussion live from Athens throughout the whole show. After the prescribed diplomatic welcoming talk, the host of the show, Günther Jauch, let the cat out of the bag: The middle finger scene was blended in, and Jauch confronted Varoufakis with the gesture. He wanted to know how “the Germans” could trust someone giving them the finger; it won’t be an option for Greece, said Jauch, to give Germany the middle finger anyhow.
Then something strange happened. Rather than explaining himself, Varoufakis insisted that the scene with the finger was “doctored” — in other words, manipulated. “I can assure you,” Varoufakis said, “I can prove this beyond reasonable doubt, and I wish that you could simply take it away. It never happened.” Everyone in the studio (including Jauch) looked bewildered. “When I’m in this show,” one of Jauch’s guests said, “I assume that every visual material and data is correct.” “We’ll verify your standpoint,” Jauch replied to Varoufakis.
Fig. 2. Still from Günther Jauch where the host confronts Varoufakis with the infamous gesture, looking aghast at Varoufakis’s explanation: “The finger was doctored!” (Well, was it?)
They didn’t need to. Just two days later, Böhmermann and Neo Magazin Royale launched a new clip on YouTube in which Böhmermann apologized to Jauch and his editorial team, acknowledging that the footage incorporated into V for Varoufakis was actually faked.
In what appears to be a making-of documentary, Böhmerman traces the origins of the middle finger in V for Varoufakis. Thus his team took the scene from an appearance of Varoufakis at the so-called Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2013. “There is this scene where he [Varoufakis] says the words ‘stick the finger to Germany,’ Böhmermann explains. “It’s a totally harmless context — indirect speech — so, [Varoufakis] isn’t really saying that he wants to give the finger to the Germans. But we [Böhmermann and his team] thought it would be a good idea if the words ‘stick the finger to Germany’ were followed by Varoufakis actually giving the finger.”
Böhmermann reflects on how the middle-finger scene has taken on a life of his own after it had been shown on Günther Jauch. Bild-Zeitung, the most blatant organ of the German yellow press, wrote “Lügner” (“Liar”) in bold letters next to an image of Varoufakis framed by the silhouette of a middle finger gesture. Böhmermann presents headlines of the tabloid press that boldly ask, “Is the middle-finger video real or fake?” Then we see footage from Bild-online where “experts” were consulted about the possibility that Neo Magazine Royale had faked the scene. “I would assume it . . . would be impossible if the whole take wasn’t done in a studio,” the expert concludes.
From his confession clip you can tell that Böhmermann enjoys the fuss he has generated. In fact, the middle finger provided him with the maximum of media attention possible. If Böhmermann was designated to follow in the footsteps of veterans of German TV comedy such as Harald Schmitt or Stefan Raab, the middle finger made him Germany’s Jester No.1 overnight. Reveling in his triumph and schadenfreude, Böhmermann rhetorically asks, “Who would fake such a scene? The only thing I can imagine is that this was some small public-broadcasting loser show.” And “who could have thought that anyone from Subversive Festival would have participated in such a subversive move?” he added with a tongue-in-cheek smile.
Then Böhmermann directly addressed Jauch, wondering how he and his editorial team could use the scene totally out of context and without verifying its authenticity. And yet, Böhmermann joked, “Varoufakis wasn’t right. You [referring to Jauch and his team] didn’t fake the video. You just used it out of its original context, took the middle finger and pulled a Greek politician through your studio so that mom and dad can get their weekly kick of getting annoyed. . . . That’s what you did, the rest was our effort.”
In the following hours, user comments on the Internet skyrocketed. Even Yanis Varoufakis himself came into the picture, congratulating Jahn Böhmermann for his coup on Twitter.
Fig. 3. Varoufakis commenting on Böhmermann’s coup on Twitter.
For Jauch and his team, all of this was of course extremely embarrassing. And so Varoufakis and Böhmermann appeared to be partners in crime when, a few days later, NEO Magazine Rolyale announced that it had actually been the confession video that was made up — faked. The finger, indeed, had been there. But so what?
What’s much more important is that Böhmermann successfully unmasked the bigotry inherent to the debate over the finger as such. According to Böhmermann, the reason that the finger had generated so much fuss has to do with German narcissism. “We’re going nuts when someone is giving us the finger,” Böhmermann says with a big grain of satiric salt. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he later stated that the whole stunt was meant to serve a demonstrative purpose: While everybody was talking about Varoufakis’s middle finger after the scene was shown on Jauch, it should be apparent that the gesture itself was actually the thing least important about the complicated relationship between the governments of Europe/Germany and Greece.[vi]
If this is so, it is safe to assume that journalists like those of Bild and the team of Günther Jauch were fully aware of the effect Varoufakis’s finger would have, namely to fuel the climate of haughtiness towards the Greek people which currently dominates German discourses about Greece. As a motif, the finger fits well in the picture relayed by some populist media representatives. The “Greek tragedy,” as commentators across the news sarcastically keep calling the crisis in Greece and Europe, isn’t coming to an end. According to this reading, the Greeks not only can’t solve their problems; they don’t appreciate the generosity of their fellow Europeans, reacting in the deprecating way of giving them the finger instead. But wasn’t this much more an incident of the Germans giving the finger to Greece?
Hence the message of Böhmermann is that we all (including the media itself) should always view media content in a (self-)critical light. Through his fake-fake — or fake in the second order — Böhmermann succeeded in executing a lesson in media criticism; he warned us “to be a little more careful of what we read or watch.”[vii] In this sense, Varoufakis makes an important point as he reflects in retrospect on his own image in the media during his time as Minister of Finance. Since he took office, says Varoufakis, the media had made him appear as a madman who wants to rip off the Germans.[viii]
This corresponds to Marco Deseriis’s account of fakes as an interventionist approach that makes use of the mechanisms of the media in order to “challenge the media’s ability to discriminate between reality and fiction.”[ix] In fact, Böhmermann’s stunt follows this logic in that it entails a fundamental critique of the softening of journalistic standards. “In the age of the seemingly unstoppable rise of infotainment, soft news, and celebrity culture,” Deseriis argues, “facts are routinely sacrificed to narrative.”
Indeed, the Internet has provided us with a wealth of oral and visual material; it has never been as easy to repurpose media content to fit a certain narrative as in the digital age. Böhmermann’s fake-fake seems to indicate that we have to be aware of that and consider every spectacular story that we hear or see under that premise.
Interestingly, the fakes Deseriis describes all come from outside of and position themselves vis-à-vis the commercial media. They share a bottom-up, countercultural impetus; their producers are people like Alan Abel and Joey Skaggs or teams such as ®TMark (ARTMark) and The Yes Men — folks who consider themselves conceptual artists or culture jammers.
However, as the case of Böhmermann and #varoufake has shown, in the age of media convergence the borders between pranksters and the media industry are blurry. Böhmermann’s original accomplishment was to develop a fake as cultural critique out of the “official” sphere of the commercial media itself. This incident demonstrates that satire can actually affect the political debate and leave the public with a degree of confusion and critical insight at the same time.[x]
Speaking of confusion, according to the contemporary Greek satirists Nikos Zachariadis, Varoufakis didn’t actually resign. A pseudo-newscast launched by Zachariadis reported that the announcement of Varoufakis’s resignation was due to a misinterpretation by the media. “Never mentioned the word ‘resignation’!” reads a faux tweet ascribed to Yanis Varoufakis.[xi] Well, who knows? As we have seen, with Varoufakis any course of events might be possible.
Fig. 4. Fake tweet ascribed to Varoufakis, saying that he has never resigned but is still minister.
[i] Yanis Varoufakis, “Minister No More!” July 6, 2015, Yanis Varoufakis: Thoughts for the Post-2008 World, http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2015/07/06/minister-no-more/.
[ii] Jeffrey P. Jones, Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement, 2nd ed., Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010
[iii] Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[iv] Christof Decker, “Radical Scavenging Revisited: Emile de Antonio and the Culture Jamming of Compilation Film,” in Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, eds., Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention, New York: NYU Press, forthcoming.
[v] On June 5, 2015, Günther Jauch announced the end of his talk show, tagesschau.de, http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/jauch-talksendung-ard-101.html.
[vi] “Wie Schach ohne Würfel” (“Like chess without dice”), interview with Jahn Böhmermann in Süddeutsche Zeitung, May 15, 2015, p. 11.
[vii] Thomas Seymat, “#varoufake: When Satire Acts as Media Watchdog,” March 19, 2015, Euronews, http://www.euronews.com/2015/03/19/varoufake-when-satire-acts-as-media-watchdog/.
[viii] “Wie ist das, wenn man ganz Europa gegen sich aufgebracht hat? Ein Gespräch mit dem ehemaligen griechischen Finanzminister Yanis Varoufakis” (“What is it like to antagonize all of Europe? An interview with the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis”), Zeit Magazin, July 30, 2015, pp. 14–23.
[ix] Marco Deseriis, “The Faker as Producer: The Politics of Fabrication and the Three Orders of the Fake,” in Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, eds., Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention, New York: NYU Press, forthcoming.
[x] In a subsequent step, Böhmermann again engaged with the political debate in Germany about Greece and the euro crisis in collaboration with fellow comedian Klaas Heufer-Umlauf in mid-July. In the YouTube clip titled Unsere schönen Deutschen Euros (“Our beautiful German euros”), we see Böhmermann and Heufer-Umlauf wearing white pajamas in a fancy hotel speaking to each other on the phone. The telephone conversation turns out to be an ironic rant against Greece in which the two recite various headlines from the German mainstream media that reflect anti-Greek sentiments noticeable in Germany these days.
[xi] Nikos Zachariadis, “Διαψεύδει την παραίτησή του ο Γιάνης Βαρουφάκης!” (“Yanis Varoufakis denies his resignation”), July 6, 2015, Protagon.gr, http://www.protagon.gr/?i=protagon.el.moyfanet&id=41963.
Moritz Fink is a media scholar and author. He holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Munich. His areas of interest include film and media studies, cultural studies, disability studies, visual culture, political humor and satire. He is co-editor of the collection Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention (forthcoming from NYU Press).