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Posts Tagged ‘M. James

The Book on the Sidewalk

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It’s been a while, but M. James is back with a new post.  You can check out his regular blog here: http://28east.wordpress.com/

Seçmeler, by Peyami Safa

Seçmeler, by Peyami Safa

Weather-permitting, it is not uncommon to see a young man selling books outside of the Nâzım Hikmet Cultural Center in Ankara. As in many places in Turkey, the wares are carefully assembled on a repurposed aquamarine* bed sheet and laid out on the sidewalk for passers-by to politely ignore while the peddler busies himself with something else—in this case, reading.

On one particular late-May afternoon, I happened across this man after a perplexing transaction with an unctuous electronics salesman and a relatively gratifying transaction with a tobacconist. The point being, I was in a good enough mood to stop and look. I’d always found these displays somewhat romantic, yet crude. So while interested, I didn’t want to be seen patronizing the odd practice. I would rarely stop to look.

As usual, the books were mainly either beyond my linguistic abilities of comprehension or counter to my sense of propriety. One, however—an older, water-damaged paperback—caught my attention. It was a compilation, a volume of the collected newspaper articles and columns of the late Peyami Safa, journalist and novelist extraordinaire. An unusual find.

After several more minutes of nervous browsing, I picked the book off of the sidewalk for the third and final time, leaving a conspicuous aquamarine gap, like a missing tooth. The young man looked up from his book only when I approached him with my selection. He asked for three lira. I gave him five—it was worth far more than five lira to me.

A few days ago, I found the time to give that book some of the attention it deserves. Here’s one of the more serendipitous, yet disturbing, selections I found, titled “The Book on the Sidewalk.” I will let it speak for itself, perhaps to be expanded on later:

THE BOOK ON THE SIDEWALK

In yesterday’s article, “Book Morgue,” Salâhaddin Güngör had this to say about the book displays that have cropped up on nearly every street-corner: “There are so many valuable and rare books in those displays that one would be shocked what can be had for the price of a glass of Hamidiye water.”

 In Turkey, there is nothing that suffers as much indignity as books. Not just Hamidiye water, but cigarette butts, filthy rags, old shoes, empty bottles, and even the broken wood and iron scavenged from rubble will all fetch a higher price than their own raw materials—and more buyers, too. Only books, only those damned, wretched books are placed on the same ground as dog waste and put up for sale without so much as a piece of cloth beneath them. When a country gives the same position to knowledge and literature as it gives to its heels, and places the nourishment of its mind underfoot, that suggests that books have about as much dignity as the brooms in grocers’ shops (at least the brooms are hung one or two meters off the ground).

 Script both new and old, authors both great and insignificant, works from both east and west, compilations, translations, and every variety of writing, writer, and quality—all underfoot.

 Fellow-citizen! There is a danger as dreadful as an enemy invasion hidden in this tragedy. Fellow-citizen! Great catastrophes will utterly destroy the progress of any nation where books crawl on the ground. Fellow-citizen! Good, bad, valuable, worthless, compilation, and translation, buy your share of these books! Sell your bedspreads if need be, but buy these books and get them off the ground!

 Tan, July 23rd, 1935

*I.e., the color of public pool locker room tiles. No, the peddlers’ bed sheets are not always aquamarine, but when they are, I remember it.

†A high-mineral-content water piped from Istanbul’s Belgrade Forest since 1902; apparently a subject of derision for quite some time now.

‡Referring to both Latin and Arabic script, the latter of which was officially canned in 1929 and replaced by the modern Turkish language.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

January 31, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Posted in History

Tagged with , ,

#irritated Ankara

with one comment

From contributor M. James:

The following, written on 6/8/13, is a follow-up on a prior post, which sought to explain how Turkey’s multi-party system not only fragments the opposition of the ruling party, but also perpetuates Turkey’s illiberalalbeit democraticsociety. As part of this chronically fragmented society, the demonstrators of this last week will have a difficult time unifying to effect meaningful political change. Worse, they don’t even know what they are fighting against.

One week ago, at 2:30am, I dropped my duffel on a poorly lit street corner and hailed a cab for Esenboğa International Airport. My shirt was damp and my sinuses were still tingling, but I was oddly at ease. In three hours, I’d be on my way home.

I offered the remaining bills in my pocket80 liraand the driver’s face lit up. He asked what time my flight was, urged me to buckle up, and handed me his sweater-vest as a pillow. I sneezed; he laughed. For the next hour on the road, I pretended to sleep. The city was calm, but there was electricity in the air. The deliberate cacophony of pots and pans emanated from one apartmentwhat would become, over the next few days, a 9:00pm ritualbut the rest of Ankara seemed asleep. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if theylike mewere only hushed, with one eye open.

The evening had been, in some ways, a bust. Intruding on my last, nostalgic night of draft beer and good company was the unwelcome irritation of expired Brazilian tear gas. I consulted Reutersthese were already, allegedly, the biggest protests to rock Turkey in years. And so, through the pungent smell of propellant, the tinny sound of the canisters, and the sight of sprinting protestors through the windows, I wondered aloud at what the next step would be.

The Turk seated across from me shrugged. He wanted garlic bread, but the bar had been too busy cutting lemons for its gas-afflicted patrons to complete the order. We called a few friends and urged them not to join us after all. Once the garlic bread arrived, we could talk. “It’s about time,” seemed to be his outlook on both the bread and the protests. “Won’t get good media coverage, though.” Being that he would start working at a Turkish newspaper in three days, I trusted his judgment. Would anything really change, though? We disagreed on that point.

We did agree, though, that our allergy symptoms were improved by the CS gas. The asthmatic bartender wasn’t as pleased. I blew my nose into a napkin and squeezed lemon into my eyes.

News and social media were already exploding. It was the “summer of discontent” in Turkeyobvious echoes of the Arab Spring. I laughed. It wouldn’t catch onthis was not anything like the Arab Spring. Soon, it would be re-branded as part of #occupy. Closer, but not quite. A few days later, I would begin to see the locally originated #diren, the imperative of “to resist,” oreven better“to put your foot down.” Much closer.

The question, of course, was whether or not those sprinting figures outside the window agreed on what they were resisting. Some came into the bar and, like many of the staff, sported tree-shaped stickers to demonstrate their solidarity with the Istanbul Gezi Park protesters. But everyone knew that this was not about a park, or greenspace, or even environmentalism. When I asked, the first word I heard was “fascism.” Adequately vague, but adequately powerful. The point was that these people had preexisting grievances with their government, and this was a timely outlet.

We walked outside just as the displeased throngsmarching from park to park since the afternoonreturned to John F. Kennedy Ave., carrying banners and chanting slogans. There were only three hundred, at the most, but within ten minutes, they drew a reckless police TOMA truck and plenty more tear gas. I was pulled into the next bar after being “warned” by the TOMA trucka quick water cannon across the chest. I ordered another beer. Someone threw a chair at the truck.

Half an hour later, still bemused and sniffling, I decided to head back to the apartment and grab my luggage. Part of me was happy to be leaving these streets, but another part was irritated enough to want to stay. And the more I sneezedsuch an unbecoming complement to indignationthe more irritated I got. Did what I was doing tonight really warrant that police response?

I suspect that many who witnessed that night on JFK Ave., or earlier that day in Gezi Park, walked home with similar thoughts. Fascists. What has made matters even worse is PM Erdoğan’s typically inflammatory reaction: A recitation of his perverse idea of what “democracy” means, i.e., nothing beyond election day. Many marginally displeased Turks have certainly been drawn into the ranks of the irritated by these authoritarian responses to what would have otherwise been truly marginal protests. And they have clearly been irritated enough to withstand the systematic irritation of their collective sinuses.

I have posted already, on Atatürk’s Republic, about how Turkish politics is only “democratic” in the strictest sense of the term, lacking anything that could be called liberal. The “liberal” use of tear gas in the last week only underlines this absence.

The problem is systemic, and can be blamed squarely on Turkey’s ill-conceived multi-party system, which all-too-naturally begets tyranny. Ironically, the men and women who have taken to the streets in the last week will try to work within their constitutionally illiberal democratic system, believing wrongly that the person of Erdoğan or the AK Parti is exclusively to blame for the “fascism” that they perceive. Even more ironically, the young secularists who make up a large portion of the disaffectedthemselves quite liberal-mindedwould be the last to advocate the two-party system that Turkey needs if it is to become a tolerant, rights-based, secular nation. Not only does the multi-party system prima facie seem more liberal, but the constitution that prescribes it came from Atatürk’s hand.

Until they realize what it really is that they should be resisting, the demonstrators will only be confused and irritated. And even if they do realize, and continue to seek change, they will soon understand that full-scale revolution is the only answera step that very few would be willing to take. Unfortunately, I do not see any other way out. The only solution is to challenge the very nature of Atatürk’s republic.

As we pulled up to the international departures terminal, I thanked the driver for his sweater-vest, dragged my duffel from the trunk, and handed over the 80 lira, and 75 kuruşall my bills and change. He thanked me. I smiled and nodded.

Kolay gelsin seemed the best parting words. Literally, “may it come easily.”

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 10, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Prospects for a liberal Turkish society

with 2 comments

From contributor M. James:

Most liberal-minded individuals, if asked to choose between a multi-party and a two-party system, would choose the former. After all, liberal democracy is all about freedom of choice, and choosing between chocolate and vanilla is simply not satisfying when one might prefer pistachio, cookie dough, or “Karamel Sutra.”

But what most people do not seem to understand is that representative democracies are designed to be deliberative bodies, the essence of which is “settling.” Without “settling,” the liberal concept of value pluralism goes out the window, and with it, the very basis for our conception of a free and fair society.

If the voter refuses to “settle” on chocolate or vanilla, and instead prefers everyone to have a broader range of options, one of two things will happen:

(1) Once the voting is over and done with, the vast array of flavors will seek to mix themselves with whatever will give them a strategic advantage in legislation. Pistachio will mix with “Karamel Sutra,” and the sweet-and-sticky combination will satisfy neither pistachio- nor caramel-lovers. The concept of political parties as principled factions is lost completely when the principles are cast aside for expediency, as inevitably occurs in this case.* What’s more, banana and rocky road will be ignored completely.

(2) Chocolate will acquire a tyrannical rule owing solely to vanilla-lovers’ slight preference for a variety of other flavors, which will never attain a majority—and if they do, it will be dishonestly, by coalition. The party that is capable of organizing itself and sowing discord among the opposition will acquire, and keep, power.

In the first consequence, the purpose of the political party (democratically forwarding principles at the state level) is lost in a mindless scramble for power by majority. In the second, the state becomes as tyrannical as in a de jure “one-party system.”

This is one arena in today’s politics in which we cannot practically hope to expand the scope of individual freedoms. In order to maintain the classical liberal, laissez faire idea of “freedom from” (which is necessarily prior to the expansion of “freedom to” in a liberal state), the multi-party system must be shunned in favor of a two-party system and the citizen must take it upon himself to begin the “settling” process by choosing from a limited number of representatives.

Paradoxically, the severe limitation of choice necessitated by a two-party system is characteristic of a much more liberal, democratic system. It not only protects the people from tyranny and maintains the possibility of value pluralism, but it also entrusts the people with beginning the all-important, essentially liberal “settling” process that continues in the legislature.

Because this is not obvious to the average voter, a two-party system must be somehow (overtly or otherwise) established from above by strong tradition, or a constitution, in order to establish a liberal, democratic state. Only if a liberal tradition is pre-existing, if the power of the legislature is severely tempered, or if a country is ideologically homogeneous, can a multi-party system survive as “liberal.”

Of course, my interest in exploring this problem lies in the Republic of Turkey, which has a large, heterogeneous population, a powerful parliament, no tradition of liberalism to speak of, and a multi-party system. Predictably, Turkish society and government are grossly (visibly) illiberal.

From two different Turkish liberals in a period of two days, I heard the complaint that Turks vote on (a) emotions and (b) “lifestyle.” Kurds vote for Kurds (actually they don’t, but that’s a different story—they do still vote based on lifestyle), Anatolian Sunni Muslims vote for Anatolian Sunni Muslims, nationalists vote for nationalists, etc. Because of this fragmentation—this variety of flavors—no responsibility to compromise is ever placed on the voter. The result is an instance of consequence (2) above, where one party dominates the state. Half of Turkey may not want to have vanilla, but they couldn’t—and will never be able to—agree on chocolate.

And with a party in power that benefits from the disorder of the multi-party system, it is fairly unlikely that a two-party system will be enforced from above in the form of a new constitution, or otherwise.

What’s more, because the last decade has shown Turkey’s material success to be tied to economic, but certainly not social, liberalism, it is to be expected that Turkey’s near future will be characterized only nominally by “liberal democracy.”

If Turkish citizens are never confronted with the spirit of “settling” between the many flavors that they prefer, and are never themselves faced with the idea of value pluralism, they will never become liberal democratic citizens. And what more is a liberal democratic society than the collective conscience of its citizens?

____________________________________

*Some would aver that an effective two-party system is necessarily unprincipled if the opposing parties wish to shape themselves according to shifting public sensibilities. There are two responses: (1) That this is acceptable because their principles shift in order to garner votes, but do not shift while they hold offices, and they are able to remain honest to their principles for a given term. (2) That the only principle that truly matters is a faithful attempt at maintaining a two-party system for its own sake, as a safeguard against tyranny.

Written by ataturksrepublic

November 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm