Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Dystopia: Congratulations America! Welcome to the club!

I am dumbstruck, like the rest of the world, with the news about 'President-Elect' Trump. Congratulations, America! Welcome to the club!

As I am trying to make sense of this development, I'll just share my thoughts here.

In  a way, this can be seen as another swing of the pendulum that is American politics. In my mind, America represents both the best and the worst. Liberals in U.S. have become the spearhead in progressive politics. From gay rights to the occupy movement, we look up to them. On the other hand, well, America produced the Tea Party and Trump. I have the pendulum metaphor in mind, because, at least in recent history, major achievements by the liberals were followed by Republican governments that pulled in the opposite direction. The Civil Rights Act was a major achievement but it was followed by Reaganomics that abandoned the lower classes to the whims of the 'free market', and the war on drugs that resulted in mass incarceration of minorities, especially African Americans. Then came W. Bush and his war on terror. Perhaps, the heavens cautioned us (not only the Americans but the entire world) about what kind of wreckage a clueless American president could cause. First it appeared that that caution was heeded. Obama's inspiring election campaign with the motto, 'Yes, we can!', restored liberals to power. Obama achieved important accomplishments such as The Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, and the normalization of relations with Cuba among others. The new president was a rational, reasonable, and decent man with amazing oratory skills. In addition, he was the first African American president. I believe many Americans could not make peace with that fact. The pendulum is swinging to the other side. Trump votes are a strong reaction to a progressive black president.

Trump received reactionary votes and I believe part of the blame rests on President Obama's shoulders. Obama promised change and he did not deliver. True, he was blocked by the Republicans along the way and that limited what he could achieve. This simply does not change the fact that his campaign that galvanized the youth and created so much hope did not bring change. And unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, this election, even more so than the 2008 elections, was about change.

Many people make this argument so I am not going to belabor the point: Very similar to other parts of the world, many lower-class Americans feel the effects of globalization that enables free mobilization of businesses, goods, and people. Not only the fast technological changes themselves are unsettling, but also loss of their jobs, and appearance of different-looking people in their neighborhoods are big changes in lower-class Americans' lives. Enter Trump (or replace the name with Erdoğan, Orban, or Netanyahu) with an appearance of grandeur and big promises of bringing back past times of greatness. These leaders' bigger-than-life charisma itself is a point of identification. People without much hope for the future look up to the fearless, wealthy, non-apologetic and self-righteous leader and find their betrayed hopes in him. A wealthy, crass, arrogant and simply inadequate man who brags about not paying his taxes (in addition to grabbing women by their genitals) shines as someone who beat the system with no repercussions - unlike the people themselves. Populist and discriminatory rhetoric directed towards the disillusioned masses is not a new phenomenon. Surprising news for American exceptionalism! Again, congratulations America, welcome to the club!

There certainly were other factors that contributed to Clinton's defeat and they raise important questions about the democratic system in the U.S. For example, the reports on the closure of voting stations in some minority areas is very disturbing. (I should also mention the disenfranchisement of felons as another major problem here.) FBI chief's bizarre and disturbing involvement in the elections with Clinton's e-mail investigation was also highly problematic. Simply put: If it was possible to investigate the files before the elections, why did not Comey wait until the investigation was over to warn the Congress? I believe, a bigger problem lies with the media - a problem we also suffer here in Turkey. This starts with the free airtime the sensational Trump received during the primaries, and follows to the different expectations imposed on the candidates. Using a private e-mail server as a Secretary of State is reckless behavior. Yet, is it equal in importance to bragging about grabbing women by the genitals, bragging about how smart someone is for not paying taxes while earning millions of dollars, or not even declaring tax returns? I understand that the ratings matter but this nexus of capitalism, media, and democracy bring us to our current predicament.

We are living through a period where global capitalism is searching for a solution to its perennial problem: How to deal with the masses that are needed (and sometimes not needed) for production and consumption. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law have been the traditional western liberal path to maintaining meaningful order. Emergence of unabashedly illiberal leaders that successfully appeal to people's fears with populist and discriminatory rhetoric is undermining democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Current developments in Turkey are a testimony to this. Turkey is becoming a bad copy of Russia, whose leader Trump is infatuated with. We should neither easily dismiss people's fears nor the illiberal solutions these authoritarian leaders' are offering them. These phenomena are a direct consequence of the unfettered reach of global capitalism that destroyed human lives and the nature with impunity for centuries. It faces yet another crisis, where disillusioned masses all around the world are not buying into the game. And surprisingly enough, either through state manipulation of the media, or partisanship of the media, or just because of how contemporary social media could block any oppositional worldviews out of your sight, individuals never get the full picture anymore.

We are facing a complete failure of the ideals of the Enlightenment. More than two centuries ago, Kant argued that we needed "public use of reason". It was vital for him that people had the room to speak up their minds, so that eventually each person heard others and eventually developed the skills to think for themselves. Where global capitalism brought us today is masses of disillusioned people who either do not care, or do not have access to different viewpoints. Trumpalike vultures are feeding on this. Two centuries after Kant, even with a robot on Mars, we still cannot think for ourselves. Liberalism is in crisis, is it time to get back to Marx?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Sultan-Reincarnate

This is not an Onion piece. It is real. An olive tree (reportedly a thousand years old) had been uprooted to be planted somewhere else by the President during a ceremony. (And yes, there is a giant mascot there...)

There are many things to discuss in this picture: The notable absence of women; The subservient body language of most of the men in suits, especially the hands folded in front. However, I just want to briefly discuss the mindset that uproots a thousand-year old tree to replant it during a ceremony.

I did not research the issue, but I will assume that there is a risk in replanting a tree. It is possible that it could wither and die. The ruthless and reckless audacity in taking the risk of killing a thousand-year old tree for ceremonial purposes represents what Erdoğan has become. First, his decisions are backed up by almost unrestricted power. Erdoğan has dominated the state apparatus (including the judiciary) to a great extent; but he also controls and/or co-opts important social forces such as media and academia.

Second, Erdoğan seems more and more like Marx's sorcerer (in the Communist Manifesto) "who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells." Marx was describing the bourgeois society and how it is no longer able to control the enormous means of production that it created. Similarly, Erdoğan seems like he has unleashed a buried inner demon upon Turkey that devours dissent and gets bigger and more self-righteous after each feast.

He knows what is best and necessary. If he has decided that a thousand-year old tree could and should be uprooted, it will be done. It is a curious mindset. We as a country, embodied in the mascot and the men with hands folded in front, are expected to conform. If laws are not in congruence, they shall be changed. If academics do not agree, they shall be fired. If journalists criticize, they shall be jailed. I am not writing these in mockery. This really is the mindset. All other systematic sources of knowledge are deemed subservient to the needs and orders of the Sultan-reincarnate. Law, science and rationality need to adapt because he has decreed so.

What is really frightening is the dissemination of this model of power and authority in daily life. More and more people seem to be imitating this ruthless and reckless audacity in Istanbul, which makes daily life much harder and very unpleasant. In public transport, parking, traffic, and queues, I observe more and more self-righteous behavior that is unchecked by custom, religion, or rationality. He has done it. He has moved on. You will live with the consequences of his behavior.

Let me not end on such a discouraging note. Here is a picture from Erdoğan's visit to another park last year. In this visit, he was pictured poking the doves with an umbrella:

I think this picture is another perfect example of the mindset I have been discussing. But on a funny note, it became another internet phenomenon. Here are a couple examples that play with the image:

With Darth Vader and Luke

In the Sesame Street

And you can find some more here.