Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bulent Ecevit on the Obligations of the Intellectual

In conjunction with this week's Ottoman History Podcast on Bulent Ecevit, we are republishing a particularly timely article of his from the 1950s, translated by Sarah-Neel Smith. For more on art, Ecevit and the 50s, including several other articles referenced in the podcast, download Introduction to Art Criticism with Bulent Ecevit. As Sarah-Neel writes in her article
 The document translated here was written by former Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit. Ecevit’s biography is strikingly unusual: in the 1950s, before his official entry into politics, he worked as a journalist, art critic, and founder of one of Turkey's first modern art galleries. His writings from this period span the cultural and political realms, making them a rich source for exploring the intersection of art and politics in mid-century Turkey. In this particular essay, the young writer used the imagined scenario of a conversation between strangers to evaluate the ways in which Turkey’s intelligentsia (aydınlar) had contributed to the country’s recent experiment with multiparty democracy. The column takes the form of an imaginary encounter on a public bus between a hostile member of the elite and an impoverished, uneducated member of the halk (people, or masses). His conclusions were damning.

Bulent Ecevit, "Aydin"in Derdi, Ulus , October 10, 1956

He’s either a professor in a department, a rich businessman, or a high-ranking bureaucrat. With his clothes, the way he walks and talks, he’s a complete “Westerner.” He is one of this country’s “luminaries,” one of our “select few.” On the bus, after surveying from head to toe a poorly dressed man with a patched shirt who sits across from him, he will turn to the man next to him.

“There you have it,” he’ll say, “that man sitting across from us is our destiny. If democracy is brought to a country where eighty percent of the population are illiterate, that’s exactly what our country will look like!”

We have heard such words at least once a day for years. During our blackest days, our hearts feel themselves darken a bit more with such words; on days when we lack conviction it is as if we even discover wisdom in them.

Most often, we do not even consider that intellectuals are an insignificant minority in every country across the world, including democratic countries. Even in countries where ninety-nine percent of the population are literate, perhaps eighty percent of them are, if not completely illiterate (kara cahil), then uneducated (cahil); but to this day democracy has not led to the sovereign reign of ignorance (cehaletin hükümranlığına) in a single one of those countries!

Bülent Ecevit. Bülent & Rahsan Ecevit personal archive.
Photograph by Ulus staff photographer, 1956.
When thinking of successful democracies, England and the United States are the first examples that come to mind. If you compare our poorly dressed, illiterate man (kara cahili) in a patched shirt to someone from one of these countries who pursues the same vocation (for example, a shepherd or a construction worker) but who is a literate know-nothing (okur-yazar cahili), who is well-groomed, who chills his water in the refrigerator, and who watches television at home in the evening, you will either find no difference in their mentality at all or you will find in favor of our poorly dressed, illiterate man with his keen intelligence gained through a more difficult life struggle. What is more, know-nothings from those countries also lack the faith and respect for education possessed by our completely illiterate man. But in not a single one of those countries has the ignorance of the majority prevailed over the future of the nation. While there may have been small trade-offs, ultimately the most progressive ideas and the most inclusive perspectives won out.

In fact democracy is not, as we assume, a system of government that discounts the voice of the intellectual minority, or neglects to count their vote. Democracy is a system of government that teaches humility to the intellectuals, and, through this humility, teaches them to heed the concerns of the majority, and to interest themselves in their concerns. These principles can only be realized through democracy, so that, even within the poorest neighborhoods that lie along his path, the intellectual will grow accustomed to going door to door and preaching the benefits of progressive thought and open-mindedness.

Our intellectuals have still not managed to save themselves from the pridefulness and feelings of superiority of autocracy and the single-party regime, from the indolence that comes from occupying the head of the table. They have not yet managed to take sufficient ownership of the “progressive” ideas that they have overheard or snatched from books, so as to be able to convince the majority to believe in them as well; they have not been able to summon enough faith to face self-sacrifice or danger for the sake of disseminating those ideas. Without themselves believing in the “progressive” ideas that they have acquired, they aim to force-feed them to the majority while avoiding the burdensome effort of convincing others.

That is why it is wrong for an “intellectual,” one of our “select few,” to survey the poorly dressed, illiterate man sitting across from him from top to bottom and say, “If democracy is brought to a country where eighty percent of the population are illiterate, that’s exactly what our country will look like!”

In fact, the proper response to this intellectual, who is “Western” in his dress and manners alone, should be: “If democracy is brought to a country where eighty percent of the intelligentsia are either haughty and spineless, lazy and dyspeptic, or fearful and lacking in belief, this is what our country will become!”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Democracy and Original Sin in Turkey and the USA

In his first trip abroad as president, Barack Obama brought up the Armenian genocide in an address to Turkish parliament. Sort of. Instead of actually mentioning the genocide, he noted that America “still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation,” as well as its “past treatment of Native Americans.”  Each country, he went on, must “work through” and “reckon with” the past.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Thinking back on Obama’s words today, he may have inadvertently highlighted one reason American liberals are so infuriated by Turkey’s refusal to even acknowledge the Armenian genocide: when it comes to really wrestling with historic crimes, our country sets the bar pretty damn low. When it comes to slavery or the treatment of Native Americans, more often than not, we as a nation are willing to acknowledge that bad things happened, hesitant to go much further beyond that. Frequently, we fit our historical failures into a tidy narrative of national progress. In my high school history textbook, for example, tellingly titled “Toward A More Perfect Union, ” we watched as our nation fought to overcome its sins one by one, ending slavery with the Civil War and segregation with the civil rights movement. Rather than whitewash our history, we turn it into a story of constant self-improvement. This version of history, in which our country has constantly aspired to live out the full meaning of our founding creed, can serve as a compelling call to action. But it can also become a source of self-satisfaction that prevent, say, any serious discussion of reparations. In contrast to Turkey's crude denialism, America has worked out a remarkable, hard-fought compromise between those who think we should confront our history and act accordingly and those who don't think we have anything to confront. Collectively, we never quite get to the point of honestly wrestling with the past. Rather, we get just close enough to feel good about ourselves while confidently evading any real accountability.

In discussions of Turkey’s genocide denial, many people, Turkish and American, cynically suggest the real issue is reparations. If Turkey admitted it had committed genocide, the theory goes, something, maybe international law or the US congress, would then compel it to pay compensation to the victims.  If this is really the concern, then let the US example serve as a reminder that there’s no need to worry. If anything, as we’ve discovered, apologizing for about past sins can be an excellent way to defuse the any expectation of financial reparations

Last April, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide led Americans to devote an unusual amount of attention to 20th century Turkish history. Turks, in turn, devoted an unusual amount of attention to 19th century American history, using every internet forum available to suggest that American interest in the genocide was hypocritical in light of our own country's troubled history. The difference, of course, is that in America we have long been able to talk openly about slavery, or the fate of our continent's indigenous population. In fact many of the people most vocally urging Turkish society to confront its past have also pushed Americans to do so as well. 

But with each passing year, a growing number of people in Turkey are openly discussing their country’s past. Now it appears Turkey may finally be on the verge of realizing that when it comes to wrestling with history, they’d do better to emulate American hypocrisy than condemn it. For example, any basic cost-benefit analysis would have long ago led Ankara to realize it would be cheaper to ignore non-binding congressional resolutions than pay millions of dollars to lobbyists in order to defeat them. Or Ankara could have used the language recently employed by the French president, who simply explained that his country's debt to Haiti is moral, not financial. But what prevented Turkey from taking this approach, at least up until now, was not a fear of reparations but rather national pride. Specifically, though, a kind of national pride reflecting the fact that from the late 19th century to the Cold War, condemning Turkey's barbaric behavior was a favorite excuse for imperialist land grabs. After World War One, the Armenian Genocide in particular was an oft-cited justification for the dividing Anatolia up between Western powers. In short, Turkey never had the luxury we did in America, where our geopolitical power let us confront history on our own terms, comfortable that we would only face the consequences on the rare occasions we chose too. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Mapping the Arabian Nights: a collaborative research project

In generations past, Orientalists would retire to their studies to peruse lavishly illustrated volumes from their multi-lingual collections of The Arabian Nights. My own collection takes up half a shelf in a closet next to my bathroom. But as I was perusing it the other day, or at least looking at the pictures I did notice something interesting: the drawings in the 19th century British edition I have are clearly based on Egyptian architecture and street scenes, while the drawings in a German edition from the same period look like Istanbul. Meanwhile, in the one early 20th century Turkish version I've looked at, the setting appears vaguely Far Eastern, kind of a French art nouveau version of Japan.

I have no idea how representative these books are, but it would certainly be interesting, and not entirely surprising, if Western Europeans tended to illustrate the Arabian Nights according to their country's colonial possessions (or aspirations) in the Near East, while countries close to the region where  Europeans set their Arabian Nights had to further exoticize the stories by setting them even further east, and perhaps further removing themselves from the scene by using European styles to do so.

There's an excellent book about the history of illustrating the Arabian Nights in English, but it would be fun to see a comparative look both at how it was illustrated in other places, be they colonial powers or Middle Eastern states. In some cases the settings of the stories themselves almost certainly shaped artists' decisions but in other cases contemporary cultural factors must have done far more to inform their fantasies.

Anyways, if anyone has a copy of the Arabian Nights whose illustrations they think they can connect to a particular place, please send us in a picture or two and we can try to compile a collection. If we get enough responses we can do a completely unscientific map of where the Arabian Nights took place in different places over the past two centuries.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Turkish Empire in Europe, Asia and Africa

Thanks go to Chris Trapani for alerting me to the great descriptions that appear on this mid-eighteenth century map prepared "according to the newest and most exact observations by H. Moll, Geographer." The full title of the image, which can be found here, is The Turkish Empire in Europe, Asia and Africa, dividid into all its governments, together with the other territories that are tributary to it, as also the dominions of ye Emperor of Marocco.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Century Old US Map Envisions United Kurdistan... Under Russian Control

European Territorial Claims on Turkey from Europe at Turkey's Door, The Geographical Review, 1916

As the French and British were hammering out the Sykes Picot agreement in the spring of 1916, an American geographer named Leon Dominan prepared a map showing the possible European spheres of influence that might be carved out of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat. His accompanying article discusses the historical, economic and political background to each power's claim in the region, but does not give any specific details on how we came up with this particular division. His predictions seem to have erred rather consistently in France's favor, not only granting them Palestine but the Karadeniz too. The map also imagines Russia's sphere of influence extending from Iran into much of Eastern Anatolia and what is now Northern Iraq, which even before the revolution was more than the British and French seemed willing to offer.

Anyways, for more on how this map fits into contemporary political debates, check out our other blog post on the subject!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Up and Down Again

Part of a portolan chart from the 1547 Vallard Atlas, which can be seen in its entirety here. It shows Europe and the Mediterranean during that strange period where North appeared prominently marked on the compass rose but wasn't necessarily up. In fact, looking closely at this map, its hard to tell if it even has an up.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Bond's World

The map above features offensive quotes about the world's diverse people and places compiled from the various James Bond books. The article below originally appeared in Al Jazeera on Nov 22, 2015.

With its most recent installment, “Spectre,” the James Bond franchise has at last abandoned Ian Fleming’s book series as even a nominal source of movie plots. Fortunately, the franchise has largely abandoned another aspect of Fleming’s writing: his persistent, overt racism. A quick look at this map, compiled from quotes found in Fleming’s books, shows how heavily the author relied on racial, national and ethnic stereotypes in crafting Bond’s semifictional world.

This aspect of Bond’s history should be well known by now, having been addressed in scholarly works, “Saturday Night Live” skits and many recent articles about whether actor Idris Elba could be the first black Bond. But the enduring popularity of the franchise can also serve as an opportunity to remember the many ways in which racism was as prominent in Anglo-American Cold War foreign policy as in Ian Fleming’s spy novels.

So these dark, ugly, neat little officials were the modern Turks … Bond didn’t take to them. “From Russia With Love”

Set in Istanbul, the novel “From Russia With Love” quickly establishes that Fleming really didn’t take to the Turks. The Turkish language, with its “broad vowels, quiet sibilants and modified u-sounds” was pleasant enough, but the Turks’ eyes were another story entirely. Variously described as “angry,” “cruel,” “untrusting” and “jealous,” these were eyes “that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to,” eyes “that had only lately come down from the mountains,” where they had been “trained for centuries to watch over sheep.”

Fleming’s obsession with Turkish eyes may be unique, but his descriptions (which seem to have disappeared from the Turkish translation of the novel) are uncomfortably close to those that occasionally turn up in British and American diplomatic correspondence from the same period. According to various cables, the Turk was “a proud man” and “a realistic soul,” “Oriental enough to enjoy standing on [his] honour against sordid economic considerations.” Even though U.S. officials usually took to the Turks quite enthusiastically, they still couched their political assessments, both positive and negative, in equally essentialist terms.

Evaluating Turkey’s potential contribution to NATO, for example, one diplomat noted that Turks were “a simple peasant folk” who took “satanic pleasure” in killing Russians. To understand the risk of a coup in Turkey, another wrote, it was important to recognize that “the stolid Turk very seldom blows up, but when he does, there is a major explosion.” 

It’s like in the new African states where they pretend the cannibal stewpot in the chief’s hut was for cooking yams for the hungry children. “You Only Live Twice”

A growing body of literature has begun to explore how the racism of British and American statesmen shaped the postwar world they worked together to build in the 1950s. As the Bond books show, Cold War geopolitics often led U.S. policymakers to support European imperialism in the hopes of forestalling Soviet expansion in the third world.