What is wrong with this headline?

Europe's new provincialism exacts a human toll that can only be accepted with a mind-set that subscribes to nothing more than a new barbarism.

Screenshot from ‘Reality Queens auf Safari’ (Reality Queens on Safari).

It may seem odd to quote Paul Dacre, the editor of the jingoist UK Daily Mail. He defended his slanderous headline about the late Marxist academic Ralph Miliband (‘The man who hated Britain’) by writing that “popular newspapers have a long tradition of using provocative headlines to grab readers’ attention” and “[i]n isolation that headline may indeed seem over the top, but read in conjunction with the article we believed it was justifiable.” (Miliband was the father of UK Labor Party chair, Ed Miliband, which explains he Daily Mail’s vitriol.)

The headline ‘What is wrong with the Germans’ (on July  26, 2013) that was used for a post we did about two pathetic German reality TV shows — ‘Wild Girls – Auf High Heels durch Afrika’ (Wild Girls – Across Africa on High Heels) and‘Reality Queens auf Safari’ (Reality Queens on Safari) — was meant to grab attention and to provoke, and it did. This is where the similarities between the two headlines end. A provocation that aims to be more than just an insult and a hatchet-job is one that stirs a meaningful debate and even helps searching for the truth. (Even though novelist and essayist Tim Parks sees a more harmful process at play in the choice of headlines.)

To ask the question ‘what is wrong with the Germans’ might as well have been formulated differently: ‘What is wrong with the French, the Greeks, the Spanish, the Danes, the Swedes, the Swiss’, and so on. You get the point.

The larger malaise is what Achille Mbembe, only apparently mild-mannered, calls Europe’s new provincialism. This isolationism, accelerated by the political and social consequences of the economic depression that begun in 2008, and that reigns all over Europe, is assuming more and more frightening proportions and exacts a human toll that can only be accepted with a mind-set that subscribes to nothing more than a new barbarism.

With a border control that more than ever reflects not only a physical isolationism against undesirables but also an isolation of the mind, it seems apt to question the continued existence, perhaps even aggravation of race and gender stereotypes across Europe. After all, and that is one dimension that the many commentators of the blog largely missed, the atrocious TV reality shows are not only an insult to Africans and black people, but they also promote and enforce ridiculous images of women: race and gender denigration go hand in hand.

While there were many comments, the following three themes stand out:

One, how far has Germany come in dealing with race and racism? This question dominated the commentaries. For some, the blog was an exercise in political correctness, spoiling the pleasure of harmless fun. With a Nazi past to grapple with, they are tired of the reminder of the duty to remember and responsibility towards ideologies that meet up with Nazism. For others, this Reality TV show was more evidence of the continued unease and difficulty of Germans dealing with racial and ethnic difference, if not a sign of the outright denial of the existence of real and harmful racism across the country.

Two, the claim by some journalists that the Reality TV show with white women making fun of themselves in the picturesque setting of an African pastoralist settlement, African men and women in their traditional clothing included, was somehow reversing the colonial gaze, is truly flabbergasting. How can we talk of a reversal of the colonial gaze when all the gazing is done in Germany, via RTL TV? The Africans merely serve as a backdrop. And how could making fun of white women be seen as a reversal of stereotypes that smacks rather of a ‘tit-for-tat’ revenge, targeted against women? Rather, it re-enforces stereotypes and denigration. Within the format of the show, how could the African protagonists rise above the role of entertaining subjects and acquire real agency that would indeed talk back to the former imperial centre?

And, three, how much control have the Himba who feature in the show about their participation? Were they knowledgeable participants, giving the producers their fair share of ‘primitiveness’ and hence entertainment as the shows required? A recent letter that some of the Himba people involved in the show had sent to an NGO that works with indigenous peoples seems to indicate that they were not fully aware of the purpose and content of the show.

Only interviews with the Himba involved would fully settle this question. What is however not in question is that the Himba are a marginalized people that are in conflict with the government over land use and development policy. Like the San in neighboring Botswana, they are seen as a problem because of their different lifestyle and their refusal to fit into traditional development patterns.

At least some sectors of Germany’s civil society are mobilizing against the copy-cats of the show; the most recent iteration launched by the rival TV channel ProSieben and filmed in Tanzania. German reality TV clearly has more appetite for stereotypical Africa.

Further Reading

Reading List: Mutt_Lon

The books that the author, a Cameroonian novelist, has been reading share an ethics of political engagement, a quest for identity and cultural inventory, and an ear for the voices and harmonies of African languages.