Martin Jahnke, a German, went on trial last week for chucking his (possibly Asian sweatshop) trainers at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Echoing the impressive footwear attack on George Bush last year (who dodged an Iraqi boot in the face) this was less an emotional protest and more an attention-seeking hissy fit.
The Iraqi journalist, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, who got Bush ducking and diving, was condemned by his prime minister and sentenced in March to three years in jail for assault on a foreign leader. But he has since had his sentence reduced to one year, become a reputable folk hero in the Arab (and Western) world and spawned dozens of internet Flash games where you hurl shoes at a digital Bush.
In contrast Jahnke, a 27-year-old student at Cambridge doesn’t evoke similar sympathy. Because — and here’s the cruel part — his outcry was so brutally self-involved. If convicted he could serve six months in jail but he won’t emerge a hero. He’s like the kids on university campuses in South Africa who protest cleaners’ salaries and then totter off in their Polos for a Peppadew cracker lunch. What makes the Iraqi journalist heroic is sincerity.
Unfortunately for your average student protestor, looking to beef up their CV, sincerity can’t be contrived. You need a true belief that the man set between your laces has unjustly affected your life or those of your family. Not to say — if you have a free Saturday morning when you’re not too hung over — you shouldn’t go and offer your body to a crowd or an hour to painting a placard. Just don’t give yourself too much credit. The aping of using footwear as a statement (a pertinently offensive custom for an Iraqi but not a German) probably means the European confuses himself with a protestor of substance instead of what he is: an unimaginative man causing a scene. Sure, he doesn’t deserve incarceration. This scandal should have stopped at the campus newspaper.
His protest attempt, preceded by whistling and shouting, saw his trainer land limply on stage. As a guest lecturer at Cambridge, the mild-mannered Chinese “dictator” described the action to his audience as “despicable” and proceeded to finish his speech, not flinching from his cue cards. However, I kind of hope that his arrogance is scolded with a brief stint in jail. Just to scare the tyke. Cambridge is allowing him to swan around and continue his studies in pathology while al-Zeidi sits in Iraq using his prison food to fatten cockroaches and then bite off the creatures’ heads. The least China can do is arrange a week in a Beijing factory — put him behind a sewing machine and let him know how his precious sport shoes are produced, so perhaps he’ll be less keen on throwing them away.