The Prayers of Farmers

I can’t remember exactly where I first heard this saying, but I think it was in one of the soldiers’ autobiographies I read when I was still in school (I used to read a lot of military stuff back then). The saying goes that there is no such thing as an atheist on a battlefield. This isn’t too difficult to understand: when faced with imminent death, people need all the help they can get and are prepared to strike a bargain with just about anyone. It’s is also a recognition of the fact that their fate is very much out of their hands, with the Gods as it were.

About the same time I was reading books like Chickenhawk and The Tunnels of Cu Chi I was living back in West Wales, which I mentioned in my previous post. It was a farming district and I grew up in what was originally a blacksmith’s cottage surrounded by farms, fields, and animals. Several of my schoolfriends lived on farms and my parents knew most of the neighbouring farmers, and as I got older I noticed that the farms were silent on Sundays. The farmers would do no work and not receive visitors (including annoyingly inquisitive teenagers fascinated by agricultural machinery), and would almost all go to church. I thought this strange because they otherwise didn’t seem like particularly religious people (for instance, you’d see few religious artifacts around the houses and they didn’t mind drinking and swearing). I eventually asked my mother about this and she said farmers were often regular attendees at church because so much of their livelihood depended on the weather, which was in the hands of the Gods. It is unlikely that any farmer in 1990s Wales would have starved to death following a bad harvest, but a few generations before and a crop failure would have been deadly serious, and even in modern times events such as flooding and disease can put unbearable stress on farmers. Many of the ones I grew up around are now dead of heart attacks; thankfully none I knew committed suicide, but the rates are high. So their attending prayer was understandable: much depended on factors outside their control and they needed all the help they can get. Besides, what harm could it do? (There are shades of Pascal’s Wager in here).

I say this to explain why this article in today’s Washington Post annoyed me. This is how their original headline read:

To me, this is wholly unsurprising. From the article:

Perdue, a former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party before governing Georgia for two terms from 2003 to 2011, has a strong agricultural background, having grown up on a farm and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine. As governor of Georgia, he also took conservative stances on immigration and voting rights and drew national headlines for holding a public vigil to pray for rain in 2007 amidst a crippling drought.

Again, this is wholly unsurprising. Faced with a crippling drought, a farming community prayed for rain. Where in the world doesn’t this happen? Here you have middle class, city-dwelling journalists sneering at a backward, unenlightened Georgian farmer for thinking rain can be summoned through prayer. I can imagine it now: “Hahahahahaha! What an idiot! How can people be so stupid?”

Of course, such utter lack of understanding of the USA outside the coastal cities and their constant derision of people they don’t understand is why the media’s preferred Democratic candidate got smashed in the Presidential election by a Republican who they thought had no chance. I came across this story this morning on Twitter and found the headline has not gone down well with some liberals either (which is probably why they changed it):

Indeed. I too am as secular as they come and I suppose if pushed I’d describe myself as agnostic. But I know enough not to sneer at the personal beliefs of people who are doing no more than trying to get themselves through a patch of bad luck, especially if they are farmers. I’ve seen the harsh reality of farming and rural life close up; our media elites clearly haven’t.  Some humility and manners wouldn’t go amiss, would they?

ExxonMobil’s Lobbying Efforts

This is a rather good tweet from ExxonMobil, presumably posted to set straight the dimwitted journalists who reported on Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing yesterday:

This is something ExxonMobil has long claimed, and was reported in Steve Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power: their efforts in Washington D.C. are aimed less at trying to change government policy than 1) trying to figure out how government policy will impact ExxonMobil, and 2) inform lawmakers what impact those policies will actually have.

The difference might be too subtle for some, but this is different from ExxonMobil lobbying the US government to implement (or not) policies in order to benefit the corporation at the expense of everyone else.

Donald Trump and Press Freedom

Much fun was had at Donald Trump’s press conference yesterday when he shut down a CNN loudmouth who appeared to think Trump owed him a favour.  Cue much gnashing of teeth on Twitter about how Trump is endangering the freedom of the press.

Let’s get something straight here.  Freedom of the press means only that a newspaper or other media organ is allowed to operate free of government interference, and can write or say whatever they like subject to the usual caveats regarding defamation and issues of national security.  And that’s it.

Freedom of the press does not mean that certain journalists are entitled to take part in the press conferences of presidents (or president-elects), and demand that the speaker takes their questions.  This is especially true if the media organ in question – in this case CNN – chose to abandon all pretence to journalistic integrity and openly side with one Presidential candidate over another during the election.

Donald Trump owes the mainstream media absolutely nothing, and is no more obliged to grant them access to his press conferences or answer their questions than he is to me in my role of a blogger.  True, it would be better if a US President or President-elect does hold press conferences such that the people can be better informed, but the media has utterly abused its privileges in this regard for so long that allowing it to continue in its current form would be tantamount to a conspiracy to mislead the public.

I hope Trump kicks out or ignores those news organisations which have proven themselves to be staffed by partisan hacks openly campaigning for the Democrats, and gives preferential treatment to those who at least pretend to be informing the public in an impartial manner.  If no such organisations exist, then perhaps it is time to get rid of the White House press conferences and let Trump stick to using Twitter.

Either way, unless Trump is attempting to shut newspapers down or severely restrict what they can print (as we in the UK seem to be doing with barely a whimper), then complaints of press freedom being under attack are utterly baseless and should be ignored.

A BBC Eulogy for Obama

It comes as absolutely no surprise that the BBC’s correspondent in New York should write a fawning piece about Barack Obama’s “legacy” regarding race relations, but it’s worth taking a look anyway.

Barack Obama sealed his racial legacy the moment he sealed victory in the 2008 election – a black man would occupy a White House built by slaves, a history-defying as well as history-making achievement.

On this point I am in agreement: the election of a black man to the office of the US President was indeed hugely symbolic, and in some ways very important.  On that basis alone, Obama’s Presidency will go down in history.

In 1961, the year of Obama’s birth, there existed in the American South a system of racial apartheid that separated the races from the cradle to the grave.

In some states, his very conception – involving an African father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas – would have been a criminal offence.

Thus demonstrating that governments can and do get things catastrophically wrong when they adopt policies based on race.  Some of us believe governments should therefore refrain from doing so altogether, but alas we appear to be in the minority.

Little more than half a century later, a black man ran the White House – occupying the Oval Office, sitting at the head of the conference table in the Situation Room, relaxing with his beautiful young family in the Executive Mansion – a family that has brought such grace and glamour to America’s sleepy capital that it is possible to speak of a Black Camelot.

America’s sleepy capital that has a murder rate of 60 per 100,000 population, a rate of forcible rape of 53.4, and is the 13th most dangerous city in which to live and work in the US.  I’ll come to the “grace and glamour” bit in a minute.

In legacy terms, his very presence in the White House is one of the great intangibles of his presidency. Just how many black Americans have been encouraged to surmount colour bars of their own? Just how many young African-Americans have altered the trajectory of their lives because of the example set by Obama?

To the nearest approximation?  None.

And behaviourally, what an example it has been. Because of the lingering racism in American society, the Obamas doubtless knew they would have to reach a higher standard, and they have done so, seemingly, without breaking a sweat.

I agree with the author that Obama has barely broken a sweat during his Presidency, save perhaps when he was playing golf instead of addressing crises of national importance.  That’s half the problem: he seemed to think attaining office was the job.  But the idea that “lingering racism” propelled the Obamas to set higher standards raises a few questions.  Such as “What standards?”

In deportment and personal conduct, it is hard to recall a more impressive or well-rounded First Family.

Well, judgements as to a family’s deportment and personal conduct are best made by those closest to them, not sycophantic journalists who receive only carefully arranged photoshoots, pre-written speeches, and filtered information.  Let’s wait until the Obamas are gone from the White House, their contemporaries retire, and the memoirs begin to appear.  Taking part in Carpool Karaoke and making saccharine speeches when the cameras are rolling doesn’t tell us much; how Michelle treated the kitchen staff will.  And insofar as class and grace is concerned, didn’t George W. Bush and his wife exemplify that as a First Family?  Leaving his policies aside – as we are with Obama on this point – Bush was unfailingly polite and dignified and I don’t think anyone had a bad word to say about him as a person, nor his wife.

The “when they go low, we go high” approach to racists who questioned his citizenship has made the Obamas look even more classy.

“When they go low, we go high” was not an approach with which the Obama’s dealt with racists, it was what Michelle Obama used as a rallying cry during her campaigning for Hillary, only for her husband to prove the exact opposite when his policies were roundly rejected by the electorate a short time later.  If I know this, why doesn’t the BBC correspondent in New York?

Also, why is it racist to question Obama’s citizenship?  Look, I don’t subscribe to the whole “birther” thing, but if there are certain criteria which must be met when running for President of the USA, then why is it wrong to ensure a candidate is legible?  One would have thought there would be a US governmental body that ensures a candidate’s eligibility as a matter of course, but apparently there isn’t hence speculation abounds.  This is something that needs fixing a lot more urgently than the Electoral College.

His family’s dignity in the face of such ugliness recalls the poise of black sit-in protesters in the early 60s, who refused to relinquish their seats…

Indeed, Obama does come across as somebody extremely reluctant to relinquish his seat.  Even if we take the reporter’s comments about Obama’s dignity in power at face value, what about during the transition and afterwards?  At the rate he’s going, and if he and his wife don’t learn to stop carping from the sidelines, his family are going to look about as dignified and classy as the Kardashians before too long.

America’s racial problems have not melted away merely because Obama has spent eight years in the White House. Far from it.

Well yes.  We did notice.

Indeed, the insurmountable problem for Obama was that he reached the mountaintop on day one of his presidency.

As I said: attaining power was the job.  Obama knew everything about getting elected and nothing about governance.  He didn’t even seem interested in it.

Achieving anything on the racial front that surpassed becoming the country’s first black president was always going to be daunting.

True.  But not making things worse should have been achievable.

Compounding that problem were the unrealistically high expectations surrounding his presidency.

Expectations based on empty “hope and change” promises made during his campaign.

His election triumph is 2008 was also misinterpreted as an act of national atonement for the original sin of slavery and the stain of segregation.

Ah, so you mean it wasn’t as symbolic as everyone made out?

Yet Obama did not win the election because he was a black man.

Indeed.  And Hillary didn’t lose because she was a woman.

Doubtless there have been substantive reforms. His two black attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, have revitalised the work of the justice department’s civil rights division, which was dormant during the Bush years.

Those Bush years which were presumably full of civil rights abuses, race riots, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement?

The Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare, as it was inevitably dubbed, cut the black uninsured rate by a third.

Because healthcare policies are best judged in terms of race.

Partly in a bid to reverse the rate of black incarceration, he has commuted the sentences of hundreds of prisoners – 10 times the number of his five predecessors added together.

He’s helped black people by releasing black criminals back into their communities at unprecedented rates.  This is apparently something America’s first black President should be praised for.

As well as calling for the closure of private prisons, he became the first president to visit a federal penitentiary. “There but for the grace of God,” said a man who had smoked pot and dabbled with cocaine in his youth.

Thus reinforcing the belief that the American justice system is so stacked against black men that only good luck can keep them out of prison.  Again, this is something we are supposed to be praising.

Race relations have arguably become more polarised and tenser since 20 January 2009.

Arguably?

Though smaller in scale and scope, the demonstrations sparked by police shootings of unarmed black men were reminiscent of the turbulence of the 1960s.

Indeed, we need to go back 50 years before we see a country so fraught with racial tensions as today’s America.

The toxic cloud from the tear gas unleashed in Ferguson and elsewhere cast a long and sometimes overwhelming shadow. Not since the LA riots in 1992 – the violent response to the beating of Rodney King and the later acquittal of the police officers filmed assaulting him – has the sense of black grievance and outrage been so raw.

Historians will surely be struck by what looks like an anomaly, that the Obama years gave rise to a movement called Black Lives Matter.

Alternatively, historians might be cruel enough to identify a direct link between Obama’s words and actions and the increase in race-related violence in America during his time in charge.

Public opinion surveys highlight this racial restlessness. Not long after he took office in 2009, a New York Times/CBS News poll suggested two-thirds of Americans regarded race relations as generally good. In the midst of last summer’s racial turbulence, that poll found there had been a complete reversal. Now 69% of Americans assessed race relations to be mostly bad.

The title of this piece is “Barack Obama legacy: Did he improve US race relations?”  He got there in the end, but I think that question has now been answered.

An oft-heard criticism of Obama is that he has failed to bring his great rhetorical skills to bear on the American dilemma, and prioritised the LGBT community’s campaign for equality at the expense of the ongoing black struggle.

Another oft-heard criticism is that pandering to “victim” groups and dabbling in identity politics is pretty much all he ever did.

But while he was happy to cloak himself in the mantle of America’s first black president, he did not set out to pursue a black presidency. He did not want his years in office to be defined by his skin colour.

Strange, considering that’s all he and his supporters ever talked about.

His famed race speech in the 2008 primary campaign, when his friendship with a fiery black preacher threatened to derail his candidacy, was as much about his white heritage as his black.

A white heritage that he wheeled out when it suited him and never mentioned it again.

Besides, there were pressing problems to deal with, not least rescuing the American economy in the midst of the Great Recession and extricating US forces from two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How did that withdrawal from Iraq go in the end?

Rather in those early years, it was as if he was trying to position himself as a neutral arbiter in racial matters, though one sensed his preference was for not intervening at all.

As his presidency went on, however, it became more emphatically black. He spoke out more passionately and more intimately.

And by sheer coincidence, race relations plummeted to their lowest levels in half a century.

Telling reporters that his son would have looked like Trayvon Martin, the unarmed high school student shot dead in Florida by a neighbourhood watch coordinator, was a departure.

Ah yes, taking sides in the middle of an ongoing investigation and attempting to influence the outcome.  That was a departure, all right.

But that month Donald Trump had also announced his improbable bid for the White House, and the forces of conservatism were starting to rally behind an outspoken new figurehead, who sensed that nativism, xenophobia and fear of the other would be central to his electoral appeal.

He also sensed people were fed up with Obama and his politics.

That America’s first black president will be followed by the untitled leader of the Birther movement, a candidate slow to disavow support from the Ku Klux Klan and happy to receive the backing of white nationalists,

Trump was slow to disavow support from the KKK?  As Wikipedia would say: citation needed.  You might as well claim Obama was slow to disavow support from the Black Panthers.

Donald Trump can easily be portrayed as a personal repudiation and also proof of racial regression.

True, but not as easily as somebody who has seen race relations deteriorate over eight years in charge while he relentlessly pursued race-based policies.

The truth, though, is more complicated.

Yes, it is, isn’t it?

Obama is ending his presidency with some of his highest personal approval ratings, and clearly believes he would have beaten Trump in a head-to-head contest.

And Connor McGregor thinks he could beat Floyd Mayweather.

Moreover, although Trump won decisively in the electoral college, almost three million people more voted for Hillary Clinton nationwide.

“Nationwide” meaning “mostly in California”.

But the black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a persuasive case that Obama has always been overly optimistic on race, in large part because he did not have a conventional black upbringing.

His formative years were spent in Hawaii, America’s most racially integrated state, and the whites he encountered, namely his mother and grandparents, were doting and loving.

Obama was not the victim of discrimination in the same way as a black kid growing up in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, or even New York or Illinois. As a result, he may have underestimated the forces that would seek to paralyse his presidency and to impede racial advance more broadly.

Indeed, that’s why so many people saw his visiting prisons and saying “There but for the grace of God”, and claiming Trayvon Martin could have been his son, as empty political posturing which only inflamed racial tensions.

Indeed, Trump’s victory, messy though it was, can easily be viewed partly as a “whitelash”.

Much of his earliest and strongest support came from so-called white nationalists, who saw in his candidacy the chance to reassert white cultural and racial dominance. Some of the loudest cheers at his rallies came in response his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim invectives.

Why, it’s almost as if eight years of racial politics under Obama has ushered in a new era of…racial politics.  There’s Obama’s legacy right there: getting white people to vote along racial lines.  Well done, Barack!

The BBC spends part of its £3.5bn tax on British owners of televisions to pay for reporters to sit in New York and pen articles like this.  Worth every penny, I’m sure.

Unsolicited Advice

I remember back when I was in school, probably in the lower sixth form, I was watching a game of cricket being played on the school’s oval.  For those not familiar with cricket, when a batsman gets out he often has a quick word with the incoming batsman to share some advice regarding the pitch and the bowling.  You don’t see it so much at test levels, but at club and school cricket you do.  Anyway, I was watching this particularly inept batsman walk out to take the crease and he was hit plumb LBW first ball.  As he trudged back to the pavilion he passed the incoming batsman and stopped to talk to him.  My friend who was sat beside me said “What possible advice could he give the new batsman after that performance?”

Now to US politics.  We’ve already had the outgoing CIA director giving interviews to the BBC as to how he thinks Trump’s administration should handle Russia, Iran, and ISIS.  Now we have Obama giving Trump advice:

US President Barack Obama says he has advised his successor Donald Trump not to attempt to run the White House “the way you would manage a family business”.

Which is sound advice, but less meaningful coming from somebody who ran it like a banana republic.

In an interview with ABC News, Mr Obama said that Mr Trump must “respect” US institutions.

This from somebody who shat all over pretty much every institution he came into contact with.

He warned that there was a difference between governing and campaigning.

It’s nice to know Obama has finally figured this out: there’s been no sign that he’s done so in his eight years in office.

“There are world capitals and financial markets and people all around the world who take really seriously what he [Mr Trump] says,” Mr Obama said.

As opposed to what Obama says.

Mr Obama also talked about the US intelligence agency’s report into alleged cyber-attacks by Russia and the attempt to influence the 2016 US presidential campaign.

He said that he had “underestimated” the impact of such attacks.

The only thing he underestimated was how useful this bullshit would be in explaining away Hillary’s defeat and the rejection of his policies.

He said that a conversation had taken place with Mr Trump in which he had discussed the importance of having faith in the intelligence community.

“There are going to be times where the only way you can make a good decision is if you have confidence that the process is working,” he said.

Indeed, and if that process isn’t working – for example, by giving free passes to criminal behaviour of Presidential candidates and making up shite about Russians hacking elections – then it is time to change things around.

Last week Mr Trump said he was a “big fan” of intelligence agencies, after months of casting doubt on the Russian link to the security breach. But he later raised questions over how the Democratic Party had responded to the cyber-attacks.

“How and why are they so sure about hacking if they never even requested an examination of the computer servers? What is going on?” Mr Trump asked in a tweet.

Questions journalists should have been asking Obama instead of relaying his “advice” to Donald Trump.

Picking Sides

In an effort to understand what is happening in the Middle East, I recalled the introduction to Part III of this excellent book: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe.

The Second World War was never merely a conflict over territory. It was also a war of race and ethnicity. Some of the defining events of the war had nothing to do with winning and maintaining physical ground, but with imposing one’s own ethnic stamp on ground already held.

The problem for those pursuing this racial war was that it was not always easy to define a person’s race or ethnicity, particularly in eastern Europe where different communities were often inextricably intermingled. Jews who happened to have blond hair and blue eyes could slip through the net because they did not fit the Nazis’ preconceived racial stereotype. Gypsies could and did disguise themselves as members of other ethnic groups just by changing their clothes and their behaviour –as did Slovaks in Hungary, Bosniaks in Serbia, Romanians in Ukraine, and so on. The most common way of identifying one’s ethnic friends or enemies –the language they spoke –was not always an accurate guide either. Those who had grown up in mixed communities spoke several languages, and could switch between one and the next depending on whom they were speaking to –a skill that would save many lives during the darkest days of the war and its aftermath. In an effort to categorize the population of Europe, the Nazis insisted on issuing everyone with identity cards, coloured according to ethnicity. They created vast bureaucracies to classify entire populations by race.

Those who did not have their ethnicity chosen for them had to make the decision for themselves. This was not always easy. Many people had multiple options, either because they had mixed-race parents or grandparents or because they saw no contradiction in being simultaneously, say, Polish by birth, Lithuanian by nationality and German by ethnicity. When forced to make a choice, their decision was often naively random at best, perhaps inspired by a parent, a spouse, or even a friend. The more calculating chose an identity according to what benefits it might offer. Claiming German ethnicity, for example, could confer exemption from labour round-ups and eligibility for special rations and tax breaks. On the other hand, it could also mean liability for military conscription: the decision sometimes boiled down to whether the Russian front was preferable to a slave-labour camp. The choices that people made regarding their ethnicity would have implications far beyond the end of the war.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European attitudes. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they wanted to or not. And, in communities that had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem –indeed, it elevated it to the problem –that needed solving.

In previous years, Arab nationalism was the big thing.  Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan defined themselves firstly by their nationality and only perhaps as a secondary concern did they bring ethnicity or religious affiliation into play (with the exception being they were absolutely opposed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel).  Nasser’s Egypt didn’t promote itself on the basis of religion or ethnicity, but as a regional power allied to the Soviet Union.  Colonel Gaddafi spent years trying to set up and lead some sort of African Union grounded in nationalism and anti-colonialism, not a common religion or ethnicity.  I am told in Syria people were Syrians first and Muslims and Christians second.  Despite his growing a beard and waving the Koran around once he’d been captured, Saddam Hussein ran a largely secular regime based on nationalism and (in theory) socialism via the Ba’ath party, which they shared with Syria.  These countries were based on political doctrines, not on religious or ethnic ones.

That’s not to say that Christians didn’t face discrimination in Egypt, the majority Shia were not oppressed in Iraq by the minority Sunnis, and the Kurds didn’t get gassed by Saddam Hussein.  And one must also look at Saudi Arabia – a nation whose foundations are religious – and the Lebanese Civil War which saw all the different religions and sects fighting one another.  My point is not that one’s religion or ethnicity didn’t matter at all, but that they were considered of secondary importance to the political entity that was the nation state (or, more accurately, the guy in charge).  Provided you were prepared to pledge your loyalty to the political regime, you stood a good chance of being left alone.  Saddam Hussein didn’t gas the Kurds because he objected to their religious beliefs, he did so because they were not sufficiently loyal and didn’t want to live under his rule.  One must remember that Tariq Aziz, a long-serving minister in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was Catholic.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian fighting that followed, and then the Arab Spring, all of that has gone out of the window.  The Muslim Brotherhood popped up in Egypt and promptly won an election; jihadists ran rampage in Libya once Gaddafil was removed; ISIS tore through Iraq and Syria, ethnically cleansing any territory they captured as they fought a religious war for control of the Levant.  The two regional superpowers – Saudi Arabi and Iran – are fighting a proxy war in Yemen and fuelling the conflicts elsewhere with money and weapons as each backs their own religious brethren.  No longer are Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Libyans allowed to state they are nationalists first and foremost and want only what’s best for the country: they must pick a side and in a lot of cases fight for that side.  Within a relatively short time ethnicity and religion has become the determining factor in one’s identity across swathes of the Middle East, taking over from nationality.

Perhaps more worrying is the degree to which this might be happening in Turkey.  The Kurds always had a rough time of it, and Armenians would probably have a few rather blunt words to say were any to read this (and justifiably so), but under Ataturk’s secular republic people were Turks first and committed to a Turkish identity and Turkish nationalism – be they Muslim or Christian, conservative, moderate, or secular.  Sure, some of the more conservative Turks might have gotten a bit hot under the collar over pretty girls wandering the beaches at Izmir in pink bikinis, just as the educated, Westernised Turks in Istanbul thought the rural folk in the north and east were ignorant, backward, and best ignored.  Whatever one’s affiliation or religious fervor, everyone was a Turk and the country came first.

The election of Recep Erdoğan has changed all that.  By running on an Islamist platform, he has driven a wedge between the more conservative Muslims and the secularists, non-Muslims, and the rest.  Now it is starting to matter whether you are secular or Islamist, moderate or conservative.  Last evening a friend showed me a photo that had been posted on Turkish social media a few days ago, before yesterday’s bomb in Izmir.  It was of a Turkish woman in her 20s in a headscarf suggesting that the city – which has a reputation as a centre of secularism and having a Westernised population – be attacked because it is full of infidels.  The number of people approving her remarks was well over a hundred.  This would have been unheard of a generation ago, Turks wanting other Turks killed and maimed over religious differences and being prepared to say so in public.

We have already seen what happened in Europe when people who had never wanted labels were forced to wear one and fight each other.  We are currently seeing what happens in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere when choosing a side becomes compulsory.  I really hope that Turkey avoids this fate, but it is heading in that direction.

Elif Şafak on Identity Politics

A friend, who will shortly be sending me invoices related to research assistance if this keeps up, sent me a link to this 20 minute talk by the Turkish author Elif Şafak in which she talks about the politics of fiction.  I have not read any of her works but my friend, who is herself Turkish, thought I’d find it interesting and she was right.  There is a transcript of the talk at the link, and the bit that I found most interesting was as follows:

Yet as much as I love stories, recently, I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story. And this is a subject that I would love to think about together. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues. … Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, “But don’t you see? There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me.” When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger. There’s a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together. I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian … And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports. Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.

She’s not a fan of identity politics clearly, and she makes a good point above: if a westerner (man or woman) writes a novel then it can be about absolutely anything, but if a non-western woman writes a book then it is expected that it will be a vehicle to champion whatever trendy, lefty cause the western literary set subscribe to in her country.  Anything else and the chattering classes start scowling and wishing she’d written something else, something that confirms their prejudices and, as always, makes everything political.  How condescending is this?

It appears that Ms Şafak just wants to write stories about anything she likes, stories that she thinks people will enjoy.  Good for her.

Luvvie Lovers Upset

The blogroll in my sidebar links to two blogs which specialise in films, and I have found both of them useful sources when looking for obscure films which pass under the radar but I nevertheless might like.  But being arsty-types, the proprietors aren’t half precious snowflakes.

Firstly, Mostly Film:

IF, in this Year Of Our Lord 2016 you think…segment after segment after segment on the living, breathing bowl-of-dicks now a month away from owning the nuclear codes aren’t topics for a late-night comedy show, then fuck you; you weren’t going to like it anyway.

Besides, when I called out this show for praise last year, there wasn’t a bona-fide narcopathic lunatic in the White House. When Last Week Tonight returns in February, god knows there’s going to be.

Satire pretty much never changes anything, sadly, and satire certainly didn’t stop Donald Trump being elected President. But if America’s shatteringly thin-skinned President-Elect is on (lying) record as being shatteringly thin-skinned about one particular piece of satire, then as far as I’m concerned, that particular piece of satire needs to keep doing what it’s been doing, only massively more so. Staying angry is the only response. That was this year’s finale’s message – don’t put up with this. You don’t have to put up with this.

Because if there’s one person in the world who doesn’t remotely care about deeply unsexy and boring institutional injustices that invisibly ruin the lives of the disadvantaged every single day, it’s that motherfucker.

Bless.  But wait, there’s more:

It’s a thoroughly satisfying film, although in a post-Trump world, it plays far more as an anger-inducing polemic than might otherwise have been the case. The tiny gains these women fought so hard for in terms of opportunity, respect and dignity, overthrown in a two-year campaign by a tiny-handed megalomaniac and his shit-for-brains supporters.

And more:

Hello to you all from Europe’s Best Website. Usually we take this slight breather to indulge in a bit of frivolity – a joke here, a quip there, a look at what we’ve come up with, and a glance at the upcoming treats the world has in store for our eyes and our brains.

This week, however – who gives the tiniest fuck about all that? When the world youactually live in takes a gigantic step towards a global fascist dystopia by handing the reins of power to the human equivalent of a massive bag of flaming dogshit, well, being snarky about upcoming movie trailers seems slightly beside the point. The caveat to that being if there was a film out there featuring a racist, woman-hating President-Elect being relentlessly bludgeoned to death by a crack team of angry gorillas – we’d definitely link to that. But there isn’t, so we can’t.

Next is Film Babble Blog:

In the age of Trump (man, I hated typing that), a story about fighting racism is as timely as can be, but this film teaches a lesson that would be just as important for people to learn and appreciate even if our country had elected the more qualified candidate.

As the saying goes, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Right now, when it sure looks like we are doomed, it’s more crucial than ever that we look back at the times that we as the people of this great, but greatly flawed country actually got something right.

And again:

A blast of a spectacular yet intimate feeling big-screen musical is exactly what we need right now as there’s a strong sense that there’s bleakness on the horizon.

And again:

This film also stirs up emotions about dealing with the difficult transition involving power changing hands next month. The Obama administration was as close to Kennedy’s Camelot as I fear we’re going get again in my lifetime. Such a movie as this is a must see in these scary times as it reminds us that America has gotten through dark times before and will again. This movie makes me want to believe that, despite the scariness of what’s on the rapidly approaching horizon, Camelot lives!

There are few things more off-putting on a blog which adequately deals with a particular specialist subject when the authors start to shoehorn in their political views. It’s fair enough if it is a political blog, but when you go to a site which advertises itself as being about films in order to read about films and you find crap like this…well, at least write something that doesn’t read like a transcript taken from a high-school debating class made up of particularly wet pupils.

Of Posters and Murders in Turkey

The picture below is of a poster which appeared in Istanbul in the run-up to Christmas, and a Turkish friend has confirmed its authenticity after I saw it on Twitter.  The writing is to the effect of “We’re Muslims, we don’t want Christmas and New Year celebrations!”

It is safe to say that such a poster would not have been tolerated by the Turkish authorities prior to Recep Erdoğan’s ascension to power and his subsequent efforts to move Turkey away from the secularism of Ataturk and towards some sort of Islamic theocracy.

On  New Year’s eve a gunman murdered 39 people in a nightclub in Istanbul that was popular with secular Turks and foreigners.  News is breaking that ISIS is claiming responsibility.  Following the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey a couple of weeks ago by a Turkish policeman, I said:

What must now be causing Erdoğan to break out in a cold sweat is whether by neutralising all threats from the secualrists in Turkey he has overlooked the threats posed by extremists, who are now seeing opportunities to make inroads into that country which didn’t exist before.

Erdoğan has shifted Turkey to a position where large posters promoting violent Islamist intolerance against secularists are permitted on the streets of Istanbul (and presumably other cities) because his political power is strongest with the nation at this point on the spectrum between secularism and religious fundamentalism.  However, in doing so he has severely weakened the institutions which protected Turkey from fundamentalist religious elements such that he might now be unable to stop any slide along the spectrum from the position of his choosing to one much worse.  In short, Erdoğan has allowed the extremist camel to stick its nose inside the Turkish tent.

According to the news reports, the perpetrator of the nightclub attack is still at large.  In my earlier post I speculated as to what degree Turkey’s security forces have been infiltrated by extremists like the one who shot the Russian ambassador:

It’s all very well him chucking secular journalists in jail and kicking professors out of universities, but this isn’t going to make Erdoğan any more secure if Turkey’s riot police has been infiltrated by ISIS.  And what about the army?  Who replaced all those secular officers that were purged?  Officers who were on board with Erdoğan’s programmes, presumably.  But were they screened for extremism?  I doubt it.

I wonder how many Turkish policemen are helping the nightclub gunman to evade capture?

I don’t like to keep praising Putin, but…

…I’m rather glad an adult has entered the room:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ruled out a tit-for-tat response after the US expelled 35 Russian diplomats amid a row over hacking.

He said Russia would not “stoop” to the level of “irresponsible diplomacy” but would work to restore ties with the US under President-elect Donald Trump.

What was Michelle Obama’s recent remark?  That the White House needs a grown-up in charge?

Well, not long to go now, Michelle.