Tag Archives: democracy

Howard Jacobson: two interviews, on how screens are making us stupid and the stupidity of democracy

24 Sep

One on Hardtalk with the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, the other from BBC’s Newsnight.  I’ve forwarded first video to 15:58 because the first half of the talk is a bunch of ridiculous clichés on the part of both men on Zionism, anti-semitism and Israel.  If you like you can always start it from the beginning.  Ultimately both interviews leave you wanting more.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Memo to: a certain generation of “progressive” Turks

4 Aug

From: NikoBakos

Re: the final and total castration of the Turkish military

Date: August 2017

Ataturk Mausoleum Yildirim Chiefs of staffPrime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey, front right, and the chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, third from left, visit the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Mausoleum before the Turkish Supreme Military Council meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


I have two groups of friends in Constantinople:* one a group of mostly Alevi**, first-generation urbanites (from Dersim and Antiocheia); another of at least several urban generations, who are pure “White” Turks in every way.

A sub-category of this second group of friends (who are fast becoming ex-friends) are/were or considered themselves to be “leftists” (“I should cough” as one of the characters in Hester Street says).  These were always violently allergic to anything that had to do with the military, Turkish or otherwise.

Peaceniks, of course, our rift began when it proved completely in their interest to paint me as a super-American hawk during the Iraq war, even if I’m deeply un-American in my self-identification and was never a supporter of Bush’s adventure.  I simply did not know what to think about the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein and took issue with their knee-jerk, anti-American attitude, with their facile certainty they knew what to think.  In the end I just decided that anybody who was automatically against the completely justified invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban — and if that’s a tragically uncompleted project, that doesn’t mean the initial result or victory was not worthwhile…ASK ANY AFGHAN — was going to be a robot-thinker about any kind of American intervention or just about war of any kind, so I couldn’t be bothered.

Of course, these types DON’T KNOW ANY AFGHANS to ask, because they’re shameless hypocrites living in their pleasant, sheltered suburbs in C-Town, who know our Cyclades better then they know the rest of their own country — certainly better than I do — and wouldn’t dare head out to Afghanistan, even on a dare.  Why do they irritate me so much?  It’s simple.

If the original sin of the Right is selfishness, the original sin of the Left is self-righteousness, by which I mean the need to see one’s self as morally correct no matter what, even if this means a breezy indifference to the realpolitik or the reality of what’s really happening on the ground.***

Of course, they were steadfast in their belief that the Turkish military was an institution of bastardized Kemalism that was the greatest anti-democratic force in their society.  This was their justification for eventually rejecting their parents’ admittedly corrupt CHP as well, Turkey’s Kemalist Republican party.  And yet it’s ironic that the Turkish military’s “anti-democratic” orientation has repeatedly prevented the complete descent of that society into chaos.  One of these types has a whole sob story she used to recite to me about how, as a young girl in the 70s, she was terrified every day when her father left the house that he wouldn’t come home because of the terrible and constant terrorist violence that was then occurring on the streets of Constantinople.  But it was the military that put an end to that violence in 1980, like it was the military who got rid of Menderes, architect of the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom, in 1960.  And as soon as Erbakan started exceeding his limits (btw, he was the first who tried talking about limiting alcohol consumption and tables on the street in Pera and Galata), the military got rid of him too in 1997 — not exactly cause and effect there.

As a Greek, there’s obviously little love lost on my part for the Turkish military.  I just feel that if Turkey’s twentieth-century history, culminating in the Erdoğan phenomenon, has proven the country to be incapable of forming a democratic civil society that doesn’t spin out of control into violence, corruption and chaos, then you just don’t have the luxury of being anti-military.  Furthermore, from our perspective, Erdoğan’s pre- and post-“coup” military is a far more threatening force than it was previously.  Violations of Greek air space have increased exponentially under Erdoğan’s tenure, as has his, and formerly Davutoğlu’s, irresponsibly imperialist Neo-Ottoman language.  And just like it wasn’t a military junta that organized the pogrom of 1955, it wasn’t a military government that invaded Cyprus in 1974, ethnically cleansing and occupying 40% of the island to protect a Turkish minority that is only 18% of the island’s population.

Lately there had been a weird shift in their attitudes though, as it has slowly sunk in that they had supported (“I voted for him!  My God!!”) the most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid (photo below).  After the takeover and purging of the daily Zaman in March of 2016, I ran the idea past a few of them: “do you think it’d be a good idea for the military to step in? …they already have more unconstitutional dirt on him than on most Turkish heads of state.”  And even the Teşvikiye girl who had worried so much about her father, didn’t get apoplectic on me like she would’ve done in the past; she simply mumbled passively, in the static cadences of Turkish passivity: “I don’t even think they’re in a position to do anything at this point.”****


Worse was one who said to me: “What Turkey needs now is unity.”  Well, your compatriots have actually shown a quite impressive amount of unity in the face of the Erdoğan challenge.  Every time he has engineered some sort of spectacular violence to terrify them over the past almost three years, they have unitedly come back, in elections and referenda and the mob-mobilization they have always been so good at, to give this “most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid…” an even greater mandate on power than he had before: Daddy please save us!

Infantile beyond belief.  Is that the “unity” you wanted?  There was great unity in the mob hysteria that this supposed coup was met with (no, I don’t believe it was Gülen; no, I don’t think it was the army, unless it was army that already knew it was going to be sacked; no, I don’t think he didn’t know; I’d probably refuse to believe that Erdoğan wasn’t the architect of the whole thing — see the New Yorker‘s great Dexter Fillins’ “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup”).  They displayed impressive unity lynching poor little Mehmetçiks just following orders on the Bosporus Bridge (scenes guaranteed to make the hair of Greeks and Armenians stand on end), impressive unity in the Nazi-style rallies the Great Leader has convened, impressive unity in heckling men from the army and journalists and writers being led into a show trial that can quite possibly end in their execution or certainly life sentence (see “Inside Erdoğan’s Prisons” in the Times) and with the kerchiefed teyzes screaming for blood outside the courthouse in Ankara — and I’m sure they’ll show impressive unity in supporting the reinstating of capital punishment if that goes up for a referendum soon.

Turkish thugs and soldiersTurks beating up young conscripts on the Bosporus Bridge, defending their democratic right to elect a dictator who has abolished Turkish democracy for the most part and soon will have the power to go after whatever’s left…Turkish “unity” in action.

IS THAT THE UNITY YOU WANTED?  The unity of Kristallnacht? (or the “Septembriana” — same difference.)  The unity of Nüremberg?  The unity that comes with thinking that you can enfranchise the newly rich, provincial pious, those with absolutely no democratic education — or education of any kind — and that they won’t turn on you like swine before which pearls have been cast?  (Plato said that the “demos” — the people — shouldn’t have the right to vote because they’ll always vote for the tyrant — τυραννόφρων; Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says precisely the same thing.)  Did you want the unity of the Italians and the Germans who respectively put Mussolini and Hitler in power with their vote?  Or the Americans who voted for Trump?  Or the Russians who voted and will again vote for Putin?

Tabrik migam, then.  You got it.

And this is the cherry on your birthday cake: Erdoğan replaces the military chiefs of staff with his own men.  Good luck ever getting rid of him now.  He’s now in a position of total control, with no challenges whatsoever.  You’re stuck for life.


* The days when in the p.c. stupidity of the metapoliteuse we used to refer to Constantinople as “Istanbul” — I mean when speaking Greek…airport announcements and newspaper by-lines used “Ιστανμπούλ“…in Greek…are over.  I’ve now taken to calling it Constantinople in English as well, as Turks are free to call Salonica Selanik or Bulgarians and Macedonians Solun and I have no problem.  I’m not going to tell others what to call cities historically important to them; it actually makes me happy.  For more on this see my: Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay! and keep an eye out for my “Boycott ‘Mumbai” campaign” post.  In general except an upswing in South Asian posts as we approach the seventy-year anniversary of Partition.

** My friends bear out the truth that Turkey’s Kurdish-Zaza Alevis and Syria and Lebanon’s Alawites are religiously the same branch of semi-Shia Islam.  The ones from Dersim have recognized that Syrian Alawites are also Alevi like them, even if that hasn’t made them Assad supporters; and the ones from Antiocheia (Antakya in Turkish or Hatay province in the logic of Turkish science fiction nationalist narrative) are just plain Alawite Arabs, who have understood that if there’s anything separating them from Syrian or Lebanese Alawites, it’s only the Turkification campaign they were subjected to when Turkey annexed that part of then-French-mandate Syria in the 1930s.  If papers like the Times feel the need to add the caveat that they’re different in every article they publish on the subject, it’s because they’re ignorant, the Turkish Press Office has made a fuss every time they don’t add that caveat, and it’s easy to think that people separated into difference by the ethnic nation state aren’t religiously brothers.  I’ve written extensively on this in a Twitter dialogue I had with a Turk who thought everybody should fight “lies and defamation” against their country when they appear in the media:

Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis: closer than I thought

Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange

Alevis and Alawites addendum: a “p.s.” from Teomete

More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or…

Look out for Alevis in the current struggle in Turkey.  Whereas Kurds proper are not trusted by the political establishment or most Turks because they’re convinced they’ll never give up their separatist aspirations, Alevis, who suffered terribly under the Ottomans and the early republic and still do on some level, are still loyal to the Turkish Republic and Turkey itself.  This puts them in the position to become the secular backbone of all democratic impulses that still exist in that country, something like African-Americans in the United States were in the mid-twentieth century, since their form of Islam does not aspire to becoming the State itself, as all forms of conventional Sunni Islam do.  They were a disproportionate share of the casualties and deaths that occurred during the crackdown of the 2013 protests, not because they were targetted specifically, but simply because they were already a disproportionately large percentage of the protesters.

*** It may seem irrelevant, but this type always reminds of a passage in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in which he trashes this kind of moral correctness by trashing the New Agers of his time:

“Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper
of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its
armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of
bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner
Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an
exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last
Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in
the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care
for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due
to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do,
upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love
enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just
as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the
morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of
the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus
Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish
egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of
passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what
these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most
horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body
knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher
Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god
within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light;
let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street,
but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in
order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a
divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian
was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely
recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible
as an army with banners.”  [All bold emphases mine.]

**** “yanlış oldu” — See Loxandra‘s amazing “duck with bamya” chapter; I never tire of recommending it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

My ‘hood: “Finding the American Ideal in Queens” — ‘In Jackson Heights’ from the New Yorker, Richard Brody

4 Nov

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 2.23.44 PM(cick)

Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary film, “In Jackson Heights,” is about the very stuff of life—the ability to make a living, to live in safety, to live without fear, to plan for the future. Credit Photograph courtesy Zipporah Films

(Though this photo shows the 7 train passing through Woodside already and not Jackson Heights — J.H. is Queens’ largest historic district; Woodside is not nearly as attractive.)

Frederick Wiseman’s approach to documentaries is so radically interventionist, his personal imprint is so strong in his choice of subject and his approach to it, that he has no need to show himself in the mirror, or put his voice on the soundtrack, or allow the films’ participants to address him and make viewers aware that he’s there. Though Wiseman is never seen or heard, he’s present in virtually every frame by the force of his analytical conception of the events onscreen. In his new film, “In Jackson Heights,” his powerful and far-reaching ideas come through with the emphatic clarity of a manifesto.

All three words of the title are important: the movie isn’t about Jackson Heights, and it certainly isn’t about the essence or definition of Jackson Heights. It’s a record of some people, places, and events that Wiseman found in Jackson Heights—but what he found there is what he was looking for. “In Jackson Heights” is, for the most part, a non-spontaneous documentary, a documentary by design. Wiseman did some filming in the street, in unplanned and uncontrolled circumstances, of things that took place when he happened to be there. But he didn’t put much of that in the film. Rather, most of the film takes place at meetings that were planned in advance. What Wiseman found in Jackson Heights is people talking, mainly in organized, formalized settings that have their pretext and their agenda defined. He finds civic life taking place in public and quasi-public places—houses of worship, stores, storefront offices of non-profit community organizations, and local governmental offices, including the storefront office of the neighborhood’s City Council representative, Daniel Dromm.

The movie runs more than three hours, and Wiseman lets the talk unfold gradually, with respect for the underlying logic of the matters at hand as well as for the passions that they inspire. The discussions that he films involve such matters as fair labor practices, gentrification, the legal ramifications of urban gardening, the push for change in traffic-safety regulations, school redistricting, police harassment of gay and transgender bar patrons, fear of deportation, citizenship-test study, and the laws and norms to pass a taxi-driver test. In other words, the movie is about the very stuff of life—the ability to make a living, to live in safety, to live without fear, to plan for the future.

The problems that Wiseman finds are local, practical, intimate, but the emotions that he films are grand and tragic. One woman’s account, delivered in a storefront meeting, of her daughter’s harrowing trip through the desert after crossing the border from Mexico has the desperate dramatic coherence of a feature film in itself. A discussion in a barbershop, about the suspected role of a planned Business Improvement District in the displacement of local businesses and the takeover of property by major real-estate investors, has the analytical scope of an investigative opera.

Here, as he has been doing throughout his career, Wiseman films people in walks of life that rarely get them in front of a camera, walks of life that don’t often involve public speaking, and he films them talking. It should be no surprise that they have a lot to say and that they say it engagingly. (As I wrote here recently, it’s a pet peeve of mine that educated filmmakers write working-class characters as stolid, silent types.) Most people do; Wiseman cares enough to look and to listen, to take an interest in what they have to say—and to find the wider societal implications in what they say and to put the ideas along with the people at the center of his film.

That’s why, if the end-of-year lists were to be made today, “In Jackson Heights” would be a contender for Best Screenplay. The fact that its dialogue wasn’t written by Wiseman is irrelevant. He didn’t author the words but he authored their cinematic form, the images and the rhythms, the selection and the context, that rescues them from the stream of time and seemingly sculpts them, in high relief, onscreen. Wiseman (who recorded the sound himself) and the cinematographer John Davey find a splendidly simple visual trope to lend the speech of individuals a public and collective identity: filming discussions for the most part without closeups or speakers isolated in the frame, but, rather, with the speakers set in a composition featuring many people together, as if creating a real-life theatre of political discourse taking place on the wing.

Wiseman highlights the distinctions between neighborhood and community. What he finds in Jackson Heights are communities that seem to have little connection. Latino immigrants meet and speak with each other, as do members of gay-pride organizations; an imam preaches to Muslims in a mosque, a priest preaches to Catholics in a church, Jewish congregants speak to congregants during a service in a synagogue. The only significant public gathering that features a diverse group of attendees is a public meeting regarding traffic safety—and there, Wiseman shows only one speaker, the representative of a nonprofit organization devoted to that purpose. The neighborhood of Jackson Heights appears to be inhabited by members of communities who live side by side but, identifying with their groups, seem to have little contact with those who identify with other groups.

But the crucial connections that spark most of the movie’s discussions are provided by nonprofit organizations and by community organizers who work for them. These organizations that play a central role in the film—whether as the very sites of discussions in their storefront offices or during the visits of organizers to the stores and offices of local merchants—come off as crucial gears in the social and political process. For recent immigrants, these organizations are key points of entry into civic life, the engagement with public institutions as well as the insulation that eases contact with organized forms of public power.

These residents and their organizers aren’t solely protesting or venting grievances—though they’re doing that, too, as well they should. They’re beginning to take part in what comes through, in Wiseman’s view, as the essence of American life, which is its political structures and systems. If there’s a theatre of public life that Wiseman finds, these nonprofit groups are the impresarios who provide the stage for residents who, for the most part, are unconnected from and unrepresented in political life—not least because many aren’t citizens and therefore can’t vote.

The absences in “In Jackson Heights” are as conspicuous as the presences—the absence of relations between communities; the absence of the voices of children and teens (I wonder whether filming in schools might have revealed closer inter-community friendships); the absence of the resented gentrifiers themselves; the absence of resentment overall, including from multigenerational residents against relative newcomers there only for a decade or two.

But the biggest and most conspicuous absence is homes. Wiseman’s subject is political life in the most classical sense—the polis, the life of the city—and his emphasis on urban dwellers’ struggle for a part in the political process, his vision of what surpasses the boundaries of the self-defined community and reaches far beyond local neighborhood, is the idea of equality under the law, fair treatment by the law—in short, the political ideal of the United States. Wiseman’s humanism isn’t narrow in scope; it’s based on the inextricable connection between personal intentions and desires and the societal circumstances that foster or thwart them, the near-constant impingement of the workings of the law on the conduct of daily life, of the inseparability of personal fulfillment and the quest for justice.

“In Jackson Heights” is about America, about the American Dream; it’s a loving depiction of people who pursue it despite mighty obstacles—and of the dream itself, to live without fear of the authorities, to believe that the government will protect one’s interests fairly, to believe in the prospect of a better life through one’s own labors. But, as Wiseman also makes clear, the system that makes personal progress possible is a legal system of fair and just conditions, not utterly unconstrained ones; it depends not on the rhetoric of boundless possibilities but on the definition of legitimate ones,.

The underlying subject of “In Jackson Heights” is the meaning of the “unum” in “E pluribus unum.” It isn’t, as this year’s Presidential-campaign xenophobes would have it, conformity to some preëxisting national culture that, given the nation’s immigrant origins, it would be absurd to call nativist. The plural is culture; the unifier is the political system itself: devotion to the Constitution, to the rule of law, to the exercise of the rights that it guarantees, and to the responsibilities and protections that it affirms. What Wiseman saw in Jackson Heights could perhaps have been found elsewhere, and what he filmed there may not even be the most salient aspects of Jackson Heights. Rather, what he found in Jackson Heights is, as the film meticulously, intellectually, allusively, yet ardently shows, a crucial aspect of American experience, a working-out on film of the American democratic ideal.

(And here’s what Jackson Heights really looks like, or at least my street and Roosevelt Avenue under the El.  (click on all)

IMG_0946 IMG_0949


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