‘Festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts.’
– Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World
“Is this my country? Are these my people?”
According to Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, when previously self-assured middle class folk in Western countries start asking these two simple questions in response to the seemingly sudden inexplicable breakdown of order and civility all around them — from lingual snarks to molotov sparks — it may be too late to save the Democracy they were wont to take for granted. That’s what happened in Turkey during the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Temelkuran seemingly woke up on July 15, 2016, military jets sonic-booming overhead, and — poof! — democracy was gone.
In How to Lose A Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, Temelkuran delineates the omens and signs of our demise, one monster at a time. It’s a grim book, and as you pace your way through its downward travelling stages into zones of all-too-recognizable absurdities, you realize the beginning of the end is already in the rearview mirror. Many of the steps she describes have an eerily familiar ring of truth that make her observations trenchantly applicable for educated middle class Americans gobsmacked by the evil shenanigans of the Trump era. They will totally relate to those two opening questions. Temelkuran argues that rather than just being a case of the anomalous rise of right-wing populists, “It’s a new zeitgeist in the making. This is a historic trend, and it is turning the banality of evil into the evil of banality.”
Temelkuran addresses three main subject matters in How to Lose A Country that are relevant to American readers keen for insight into how it goes wrong and where it ends up. First she describes the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the myriad villages of Anatolia, beginning in 2001, led by Erdoğan. Second, she describes the seven steps of the demise of democracy, including the road signs designating where you are in the deterioration of your nation. And third, she offers up a way of identifying “seven steps the populist leader takes to transform himself from a ridiculous figure to a seriously terrifying autocrat, while corrupting his country’s entire society to its bones.”
Temelkuran’s first experienced coup happened on September 12, 1980. She writes, “I looked up at the clear blue sky and said to myself, ‘Oh, this must be what they call dawn.’ I was eight, and one of the most vicious military coups in modern history was just getting started.” Her word ‘dawn’ will figure in her book the way “Woke,” derived from African-American Vernacular English to describe the first waking to social consciousness, is employed by the meme-and-trope hungry MSM. African-Carribean singer Bob Marley, who woke up before most of us, called it the Real Situation, a song off his album Uprising, released just before the Turkish coup.
Temelkuran passes on an anecdote about her half-Turkish American nephews who were visiting their babaanne (grandmother) in Istanbul on the morning of the 1980 coup. Scheduled to go home to America on the morning of the coup, their babaanne had fixed them up with a lavish Turkish breakfast. “Had they not experienced the dawn during the coup,” writes Temelkuran, “their memories of babaanne would have been limited to indulgent breakfasts.” Instead, they can hear the jets overhead and “as day broke they watched their babaanne crying and chain smoking in front of the TV.” The nephews wanted to know what happened to cause her sorrow. “Babaanne was too tired to tell him that every generation in this country has its own dark memory of a dawn,” remembers Temelkuran.
And always the same pattern. “In Turkey, coups are played out over forty-eight-hour curfews, and the leftists are locked up at the end,” she writes. It sounds like the ending of Casablanca with ‘the usual suspects’ rounded up, but without the happy resistance and beautiful relationships ahead. Temelkuran jumps forward to July 15, 2016, her second coup, the day Erdoğan declared martial law. Same stuff — away with the Lefties: academics, journalists, mass media talking heads, and other potential resistors to the Erdoğan regime. Probably he lost little sleep when he learned WaPo columnist Koshoggi had been ‘interrogated and deconstructed,’ to use an academic expression, and, who knows, given the Saudi human rights ethic, maybe literally shot out into sands as cannon fodder. Democracy Dies in Darkness indeed.
“Since the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1923,” Temelkuran writes, “under Kemal Atatürk, the army has traditionally been the most respected institution in the country, if not the most feared.” For almost one hundred years the Turks have turned to Europe and said, in so many words, We will not be ottomans you can put your filthy feet up on, we were once an empire, too, and like you, we still have after-images of our glory and will compare our architecture to yours any day. Respect. And, likening his rule to Marlon Brando’s Godfather, Temelkuran says that Erdoğan intends to enforce this respect. She notes that when he was prevented by host nations from recruiting and gathering Turkish expats in Europe for support of his coup, he told them, “If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets.”
Temelkuran traces this gangster posture back to 2001 and the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP, when he started reaching out to stoke the “grudges” of “real” people left behind by Turkey’s elite. Temelkuran saw AKP taking root in the overworked soil of forgotten Turkish toilers — Ottoman ‘deplorables’ — who hankered for the “respect” that had once come with Empire. They yearned to have Turkey Be Great Again.
In her Create A Movement chapter, Temelkuran remembers the subtle changes in ordinary village people as Erdoğan’s influence took root among the Turkish hoi polloi, especially Muslims who’d felt second-citizened by Turkey’s secular system. Describing herself as “floating like the angel with a bugle in Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels to alarm the wool-gathering masses,” Temelkuran observes of the villagers and urban sprawlers, “These people, they changed all of a sudden, it’s as if they are now a different species.” Erdoğan had convinced them that they had been “disrespected” by elites who seemed intent on making their meagre lives even more miserable.
Temelkuran, who in the book will champion the idea of a Woke global movement away from an ‘I’ toward a ‘We,’ thinks she knows the fascination her unsung compatriots have with Erdoğan. “The cafés are located alongside the Ottoman fortress walls, where bloody wars were fought to enable us to one day have these glorious feasts and to be irritated when our order is late,” Temelkuran writes.
Temelkuran ponders the middle class shock and awe of what’s taken place:
Some of us cannot and never will understand why a man who can hardly make a living is proud of the fact that Erdoğan’s is ‘the greatest palace’, or why he rejoices when he hears that the daily cost of running that palace is ten times more than he earns in a year. For many of those who are privileged enough to be in a position to try to analyse the important matters of big politics, the ordinary man’s feeling of smallness and the rage it engenders are inaccessible, and so it is equally hard for them to comprehend how that smallness might desperately crave to be part of a we that promises greatness.
Indeed, the rage, as incomprehensible to many on the Left as it seems to be, is a reaction to the more infuriating elitism from arrogant, often presumptuous understanding of how “real” people live. Call such rage the downside to postmodern relativism.
Temelkuran takes the pulse of a zeitgeist without centering propositions. “The United Nations, that huge, impotent body created to foster global peace, is crumbling, while the smallest unit, the soul, is decomposing as it has never been before,” she writes. Is the Enlightenment dissolving to black before our very eyes? Are we returning to a new Dark Age of pre-Magna Carta feudalism where might is right and the Right has the might? Citing the uprisings in Seattle in 1999 and Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, Temelkuran writes,
In a world where more people are talking, but fewer are being heard, they wanted to tell the rest of humanity, through their bodies, that regardless of our differences we can, and indeed must, come together to find collective answers to our age of disintegration, otherwise everything will fall apart.
Again, in her vision, a world that moves from I-oriented politics to We.
If the rise of populist tyrants begins with the creation of a movement that stokes grievances, it proceeds along a pathway of predictable steps, and Temelkuran traces them, each chapter a discussion of progressive deterioration: Terrorize Language; Sexy Immorality; Disrupting and Dismantling Justice and Politics; Create the “Real” Citizen; Let Them Laugh at the ‘Carnivalesque’ of It All; Build Your Own Country.
It is often said that the first thing to change under a fascist regime is language. Most humans use language to communicate, to negotiate in the public space and understand using words that may have different meanings in the free zones of respective consciousnesses. Fascists sound like they are using the same English, but you soon discover their intention is not to communicate but to dominate, and what you may see as a negotiation of meaning is actually a manipulation of your being. She writes,
Although it may seem that the current right-wing populist leaders are performing some kind of magic trick to mesmerise the previously rational adult masses and turn them into children, they aren’t the ones who opened the doors to infantilised political language.
She points to Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the USA as precursors to the condition we find ourselves in now.
The infantilized language is corrosive, it takes everyone down a few notches when it becomes the lexicon of mainstream media, once-adult pundits giving way to the newly spun definitions of old words, populists laughing at the absurdity of ‘reality-based thinkers’ being punked by clown tactics, as if they accepted the con of 3 Card Monty as a form of quantum mechanics. One can imagine Trump and Erdoğan cracking up together at a cafe along the Bosphorus over the silliness of reality and the vacillations of language.
Temelkuran cites Camus a couple of times, first his observation, “A man with whom one cannot reason is a man to be feared.” (If this is true, we should stop laughing and be in terror of Trump.) The second reference seems to go to the heart of the matter:
We have finally lost what Albert Camus called ‘the old confidence [that] man had in himself, which led him to believe that he could always elicit human reactions from another man if he spoke to him in the language of a common humanity.’
This seems naive now, this notion of a common humanity, as if it, too, were a mere construct, dismissed with the classics, the canon, and ancient primal structures of the mind.
Alternate valid ways of seeing history, from that of the king to that of the pleb, becomes conflated with the reign of subjectivity, ‘all indians and no chiefs’, such as we often see on online, where everyone’s a writer (a journalist (a columnist (what Nabakov referred to in that great take-down of facile American culture Lolita, “a criminal of perception.”)). This is all meet and good, and yet, terrible, when you think about it, leading us to divided subjectivities rather than a common humanity or common reality. And nobody wants to hear about Marx any more. Temelkuran says Trump and Erdoğan exploit such fissures by relying on “alternate facts.” She writes, “The spectre of alternative truth – highly organised, large-scale lies – that haunts the establishment today was heralded by the normalisation of shamelessness.”
We lefties want to go Two-Minute Hate on Trump everyday, but a closer look reveals that decades of shameless exploitation by political propagandists and commercial jingoists has corrupted our collective consciousness, reduced a lot of our thinking to subgenres of pornography. As Dylan said all those years ago, “It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.”
Along with all the other silliness and daily degradation that populist thinking brings, Temelkuran writes that it also brought a much-unneeded milestone:
Lies that they rebranded as ‘alternative facts’ multiplied at such a speed that it was as if there were an all-you-can-eat buffet from which you could simply pick and choose what you wished to believe. While the defenders of truth looked on helplessly, the looters were unembarrassed as they piled their plates high with made-up stories, groundless ideas and theories that showed no regard for common sense or centuries of long-accumulated knowledge. And in 2016 when OxfordDictionaries finally gave this mess a name –‘post-truth’ – we entered a new age.
If you’ve been a rubberneck at Turkish buffet, this is a humorous metaphor; there are pile-ups. But when Turd Blossoms in a tureen are called lotuses on an Irish stream, and are the preferred food-of-thought, who will wipe that post-shit-eating grin off your face? Temelkuran seems to ask.
Which brings us to one of Temelkuran’s livelier shame-driven allusions. Abhorring the need to mix among “the shamelessness of the detached” who remind her of “real-life Borats,” she points out how the outrage Kazakhs felt at their humiliation from Sacha Baron Cohen’s first film was alleviated by its success at the box office, which “put locals on the map” and led to a boom in tourists. The Kazakhs were “perfectly content to have their island of reality visited by citizens of other islands only to be ridiculed, so long as they pay for it.” (SPOILER ALERT: In the just-released sequel, Borat 2, Borat returns triumphantly to the Kazakh village, and later he punks Trump deplorables with his “daughter,” including the hands-in-pants Rudy Guliani.) There’s a growing sense of the Caligula-esque, Temelkuran seems to say.
With this level of corruption and clowning around, it doesn’t take much more to watch the dismantling of judicial and political mechanisms, the subject of her fourth chapter. For example, many of us still wonder what exactly the Russians might have done online in 2016 to affect the US presidential election. Temelkuran describes the work of such presumed trolls:
The Russian and Turkish governments have the same payment policy for their troll armies. The forces of the anti-science and anti-facts invasion are, ironically, paid roughly the equivalent of an associate professor’s salary. Basically, if you are smart enough to fluff up the ideas on a list handed to you by your post-truth supervisor every day, to embellish them with some ruthless adolescent jokes and attack real people while hiding behind multiple pseudonyms, you are qualified for the job.
Trump would be overqualified, but Cepi is holding a seat for a post-presidential seat for him in Istanbul. (In 2016, Cepi used Facetime to call the shots behind the curtains of his coup.)
There are moments in Temelkuran’s trenchant and energized narrative where she reminds us in a tick how far we’ve gone down the low road of no-return and have started taking the goofiness for granted. She remembers for us Melania Trump’s 2018 trip to the Texas-Mexico border to visit a controversial child care detention center where she “wore a jacket that put her on the trending topic list for days…the first lady’s unprecedentedly cheap ($39) coat had the dominant moral framework’s motto scrawled on its back: ‘I really don’t care. Do U?’”
Damn, you suddenly realize, our tolerance for this behavior is more a reflection on us than her.
And such behavior by Mrs. Populist Tyrant, Temelkuran reports, is an ad, equivalent to that old I Want You poster, that serves as a recruitment for a new kind of callous, rage-released citizen that is the subject of her fifth chapter. In Turkey, every abortion is now reported to the State, a head’s up that women’s bodies are controlled by men again. Temelkuran writes:
Every regime, without exception, starts building its ideal citizen by tampering with its women. It takes a whole generation to create a new man, but redesigning women, so they believe, is an overnight job.
She adds that this is why “women are the first and most vocal people to react” and why we should see it for the heads-up it is — pussy-grabbing and “everything” follows. She describes the plight of women since Erdoğan’s rise: “Murders of women have skyrocketed, and child marriages are being legitimised as ‘our traditional values’ promoted by Erdoğan and his party.”
In Let Them Laugh at the Horror, her chapter on the response to the carnivalesque take-over of common sensibilities by the charlatans of reason who rule our lives, she describes how people like herself gasp at the doings, they can’t find a way to believe what they see going on, they ask those questions: “Is this my country? Are these my people?”
Now powerless to defend against the onslaught of new rules posited and enforced by the “real” people, we resort to the laughter at the reducció a l’absurd. She cites Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, “‘Festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts.’” She remembers how festive and gay it was for the resistance following the Gezi rioting of 2013, where resisters tapped into that carnivalesque laughter that they called the Gezi Spirit:
That spirit was the ultimate rejection of power, for it emerged from a huge communion in which the need for power was mocked, and powerlessness was celebrated by embracing every insult directed at them by the ruler.
But soon, after the clown lowers the boom, the laughter becomes a memory you shared with like-minded others.
Worse, Temelkuran shows how over time Erdoğan and his “real” people turned the laughter around. “Right after the coup attempt in July 2016, three summers after the Gezi protests,” she writes, “Erdoğan called his supporters to Taksim Square.” Sarcasm ruled, empty imitations of joyous protest were yodeled. The carnivalesque had been co-opted. “A certain kind of deep bitterness had crept into the humor,” she writes, “and the jesters who had once been touched by the carnival spirit were now turning on each other…They weren’t celebrating or embracing being powerless any more.” The shit-eating grin had won out.
When you reach this step, writes Temelkuran, then it’s about transformed into a new country. The secular nation that Ataturk led and nourished 100 years ago, not without problems, now flows in a different direction by means of the return to the primacy of Islam and all the conservatism that that entails.
As we move toward election day in America, Temelkuran How to Lose A Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship is a worthwhile read in preparation for the likely ‘revolution’ ahead in America — either further into clownhood banana republicanism or toward or a don’t-take-no-for-an-answer charge toward democratic socialism. The Gezi Spirit seems to be with the American Left at the moment, if the response to George Floyd’s murder, the DC protests, and the doing in Portland are any indication. “The spontaneous carnivalesque resistance movements were there to remind us of the fact that when you fight your fight it leaves no time for debilitating melancholy to take root,” writes Temelkuran. But just as important is action. “There can be no understanding without action,” she adds.
Vote on November 3rd and don’t let the bastards disenfranchise another vote in America again.