Monday, March 20, 2017

The dustbin of quackery

There’s a nice little joke life plays on you sometimes.  I'm thinking about that line in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  Remember when that nice upper middle class couple played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are faced with the black boyfriend their daughter brings home and wants to marry?  Played by Sydney Poitier?  Father/Tracy is torn between wanting to show his love for his daughter by getting behind whatever makes her happy, on the one hand, and the white racist assumption of the day, on the other, that “God knows what kind of trouble you’re bringing down on us all” by this foolish desire to marry outside the white race.  Mother/Hepburn puts her finger on the problem Father/Tracy is having immediately.  “Your problem is you’re being confronted by your own principles.”  White liberal abstract meets white liberal concrete.

I posted my views on the hostile reception Middlebury students gave Charles Murray the other day.  I’ve had a number of conversations about it since, and despite feeling some sympathy for those put out by Murray’s ideas, I am sticking to my view that this is a free speech issue and that the students who protested should face some kind of disciplinary measures for their actions. They should not have shut down the talk.

And then today I read that Joseph Nicolosi has died and I have to fight the voices in my head going, “Ding Dong, the witch is dead.” Have to hear my grandmother and imagine her wagging finger.  “Now, now, don’t you dare celebrate anyone’s death.”

Nicolosi was the Big Daddy of conversion therapy, the clinical psychologist constantly cited by the likes of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, the two chief Christian homophobe groups responsible for messing with who knows how many gay kids’ heads trying to make them turn straight.

Any person, particularly a gay person who manned the suicide prevention center phone lines, who goes back to the day when homophobia was like Monopoly, a parlor game anyone could play, will understand my desire now to sing and dance. And the desire to shut this man down. Free speech is one thing.  Holding forth with seriously messed up ideas that cause stress to the point of self-destruction is another.

I find parallels everywhere.  Imagine you’re a concentration camp survivor (there are very few left now, so it’s harder to get yourself in their shoes) and you find yourself at a lecture by Holocaust denier David Irving.  How do you sit quietly in your seat and listen?  How do you not throw the brick at the bastard’s head you smuggled in in your purse? 

Or imagine, if you are not black, that you are, and your neighbor likes to display a Dixie flag every day on his front porch.  How do you not rip it down?

Free speech is not for sissies.  It takes some pretty strong convictions. 

In the case of Charles Murray, where it’s still not clear (at least to me) that his ideas are harmful, you pretty much have to spend hours and hours reading his work, and even then there is no guarantee you will understand what he is getting at.  Or you can, like me, read the literature surrounding his argument by those who seem to know what they are talking about, and try to form an opinion that way.  If you do that, I think you should then stand back and let him talk.  Give him enough rope to hang himself with, if you think he’s seriously messed up.  It's probably easier to say that if you're not black, but I also don’t think his research results that show blacks have a lower IQ tell the whole story.  No skin off my nose, I say. Let the debates go on. It will all come out in the wash.

The Dixie flag?  I’d tear it down.  Just as I would a swastika.  I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but I don’t think these symbols are debatable.  One is the symbol of a regime which plunged the world into a war in which something like forty million people lost their lives.  The other is a symbol of a regime willing to go to war to maintain the right to keep Africans in a state of slavery.  I’d call that the equivalent of hate speech and tear the damn things down.

And I recognize that there are people more liberal than moi who would argue I’ve caught the PC virus and need to rethink what I’m saying.

But back to Joseph Nicolosi and the world of homophobia.  There was a time when I would debate such questions as whether Nicolosi is better or worse than the folks at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for Clowns.  Sure, that’s not what they call themselves, but what are you supposed to call a "university" built by money contributed by the suckers of televangelism?  A university whose name reveals the connection right-wing Christianity has made with American patriotism, the folks convinced Jesus was an American, and probably a Southern Baptist.  They are not all bad guys, I’m willing to concede, but the hair on the back of my neck goes up when I read on Wikipedia that “it was announced in December 2016 that Liberty University will be constructing an on-campus shooting range for students to protect themselves against terrorist attacks.” Ideas have consequences.  Homophobia is not the only bad idea spawned by Falwell and company, but it’s certainly front and center.

At least Nicolosi has been thoroughly discredited and in retrospect free speech advocates got this one right.  It took friggin' forever, but the debates led to research and the facts came out.  As early as 1973 the American Psychiatric Association took action that countered Nicolosi’s contention that homosexuality was a psychological disorder.  They removed it from their list of psychological disorders.  Mental health providers are now banned in six states from practicing the kind of head rewiring he advocated, and twenty other states are working on legislation to follow suit.  When California passed protection for LGBT youth along those lines, Governor Jerry Brown said of these practices that they will “now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”  The sea change in attitudes toward LGBT people and a new generation of young people who wonder “What was the wuss?” shows he got it right.

Nicolosi suffered for his ideas.  Angry gay people are known to have spraypainted a rainbow over his front door.  

OK, I’m being cute.  They also sprayed “Nazi” and “homophobe” as well.  

Like I said.  Not for sissies.




Sunday, March 19, 2017

Saving the toes

I was just reflecting on the fact that so much of my dinner conversation and my correspondence with friends is about how hard it is to live with the daily encounter with dysfunctionality.  How much it takes out of you to read day after day about refugee children turned away and medical services for the poor to be shut down, afterschool programs, meals-on-wheels, NPR and on and on – all to build more tanks and a wall to keep Mexicans out that Trump promised they would be forced to pay for. How much you want to turn off the sources of news and pretend it’s not happening. Running from it is, I think, totally understandable.  

But to run is an overreaction. First off, I think hiding from what bothers you is counterproductive. Not facing reality is like never taking off your shoes. Feet are wonderful things, but they stink if not washed and exposed to fresh air.

I have boasted over the years that most of my friends are neurotics.  That’s overstated.  There may be a real neurotic or two in there, but for the most part they are wonderfully bright people who are simply too often inclined to depression. I think there is truth to the saying, “If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention.” People who are depressed are people who think and are open and vulnerable, and simply become overwhelmed with too much bad news, some of their own imagining, of course, but much that is real, as well.

I got good advice from a shrink early on in my twenties that stuck with me.  The solution is to focus on perspective, he said, because while the causes of depression are many, and therefore cannot be easily addressed, what keeps you in depression is the conviction that the here-and-now is a permanent here-and-now, and that’s not the case.

I have a tremendous respect for civilizations that have been around for a while.  I’ve written recently about how I think the Jews know how to process suffering.  Another group that has learned from centuries of life lived with pain and suffering are the Buddhists. They know how to process nonsense.

The only certainty, say the Buddhists, is that things will change.  And that means the fundamental premise of depression is wrong.  What you have to do is hold on till the present becomes the future. Good sleep, good work, good food, good conversation, good music, anything that is good will hold you over, usually, till the circumstances change.

I’m committed to not surrendering to despair over the Trump phenomenon.  I heard a German say the other day how much he admired the American system of government with its checks and balances.  They are working.  We tend to favor the short term at the expense of the long term. We also all too often focus on the hole, not the donut.  The hole is this current short term Trump mess. The donut is the whole package of American ways of doing things, the naïve assumptions that happiness is achievable (which often become self-fulfilling prophecies), the drive, the curiosity and inventiveness, and that system of checks and balances.

Democracy moves slowly.  It will take time to take down Trump, but he will be taken down.  

The outrages of the health care reform are sinking in.  Even Republicans themselves are astonished at just how bad Ryan's plan is, how it is a short-term mechanism for making the rich richer which in the long term will eat away at not only our national health but our national confidence in ourselves. The lies - about Obama, about the British participation in tapping into Trump's phones, etc. etc. are beginning to get world attention and more and more people are questioning how one can be expected to work with someone who can't be counted on ever to speak the truth.

In the NY Times this morning was an article by Ross Douthat that suggested we consider Singapore's healthcare system as a model to follow.  Douthat concluded in the end that a) we could never pull it off because it involves too much government control, and b) we will end up sooner or later with single-payer health care.

I don't think that's merely wishful thinking.  Single-payer, I mean.  The idea that Ryan and Company will repeal and replace Obamacare with "something better" is now being exposed as a conspicuous lie.  The cost is simply too high, and the law of entropy, if nothing else, will force us into a simpler solution. Single-payer has lots of vested-interest opposition, but there's no doubt it's simpler. I’m reminded of that quote attributed, probably erroneously, to Churchill, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” 

I have been unable to live up to my own promise to get and stay more involved in politics, because like most of my friends I'm burned out from the endless stream of bad news.  I only tune in partially, and only for limited periods of time.  I think we all have to find out own endurance limits and go with those.  

Here’s my plan.  I want to time myself.  Keep track of the time I engage with the political scene and then match that time with one of my guaranteed pleasure makers - reading, music, walking, whatever. For whatever amount of time I spend taking in the news or talking about it, I want to set aside that much time with spirit-lifting activity.

One of my father's constantly recycled quotes, along with "even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day," was "it's a great life if you don't get tired."  And a friend once told me (I'll have to ask a Greek sometime if it's true) that where we say, "Take it easy" the Greeks say it more clearly: "Don't get tired."

Easier said than done, of course.

I think there’s no way to never not get tired.  You just have to plan what to do when you do.  Sleep is always good, and I have an advanced degree in napping.  But so is uplifting activity, which can work better than sleep much of the time.

So I'm looking forward to the day when America has universal healthcare coverage and when we finally realize we have no choice but to address climate change, and the fact that we have a cruelly unbalanced distribution of wealth which it is within our power to change.

We just have to go through this dark period of shooting ourselves in the foot first.  We'll run out of bullets eventually.  Or get tired of losing toes.

We just have to remember to keep the toes on ice so they can be sewn back on when the time comes.




Friday, March 17, 2017

It comes down to the music


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Religion, a particularly warped form of it, has played a large role in American life, and in mine.  And I have spent entirely too much time, I’m thinking these days, raging against the phonies, the hypocrites, and insecure petty folk who are manipulated by it and who use it to manipulate others.

I was raised in a Christian environment.  In the small town where I grew up most people went to church or synagogue, and I have to credit that cultural life for many of my fundamental values.  There was pettiness and meanness enough to go around, to be sure, but there were also lots of very decent people who took solace in their religious faith and credited it with the kindness and compassion they took to be essential for a life of substance and meaning.

I lost that faith sometime after my twentieth birthday when I went to Germany and discovered how different German Lutherans in Germany were from German Lutherans in America.  That led me to question the degree to which religion was tied to culture and come to see how arbitrary were the dictates of any given culture.  It was the arbitrariness of it all that made me think I’d be better off searching for things that are true, rather than buy any longer into any packaged set of truth claims that demanded belief without evidence, especially those notions that laid claim to universality but clearly reflected local varieties of groupthink.

Also, I developed an intense loathing for organized religion at some point early on as I came to recognize that I was gay and that religion had inculcated in me a self-loathing that pushed me to the edge of suicide.  I have never forgiven religion for that, and I probably never will.  Eventually I recognized that all religious doctrines are cherry-picked, and that it’s the cherry pickers, not the religion itself necessarily, that is to be blamed for religion's dark side.  That freed me up from what had become an obsession to do all I can to root out religious influences around me.

I had a friend who was raised a Mormon.  His name was Merrill.  We met in the 1960s, way before the sea change in America that made acceptance of gay people the norm.  One stayed in the closet if one wanted to be able to move comfortably in the larger world.  One lived a lie.  Laughed at jokes about fags.  Many of us became violent toward other gays so that others would not “mistake” us for being gay ourselves.  The deception was unbearable to many.  Forty-two years ago this week Merrill got hold of a rifle and blew his brains out. 

I called his sister, who had raised him.  Stumbling in the dark, desperate for words, I said something like, “I guess we’ll never know why he did it.”  I knew full well why he did it.  He wanted to be part of his large Mormon family of twelve kids, but the older six rejected him and he found that unbearable.  To my surprise, his sister responded, “I know exactly who killed him.  The Mormon Church killed him.”  She was one of the younger six and - it shouldn't have surprised me - she knew him even better than I did.

My animosity toward religion was already pretty solid by this time, so Merrill’s suicide was not the source of it.  But it solidified and intensified it.

It took me some time to separate my resentment of the scriptural injunction against same-sex relations – at least as it is interpreted by most literal-minded Christians, Muslims and Jews – from my resentment of the soul-killing way so many of these people actually practiced their religion.  I didn’t believe the myths that had grown up over the centuries, the exodus out of Egypt, the Virgin Birth, Mohammed’s ascent into heaven on a white horse from Jerusalem and all the rest of it.  It wasn’t really my anger at the religion-based homophobia that made me a church-basher.  It was the fact that I simply could not get behind the claims that there is a God, that he created a man and a woman and put them in a garden and told them not to eat of the tree of knowledge.  And then punished all their descendants when they disobeyed him until he changed his mind and decided it was time to come to earth as a human being and make himself a sacrificial lamb to “redeem” us from that inherited sin.  How, I've always wondered, does anybody in their wildest drug-induced fantasy life make sense of all that shit?  I mean never mind the obvious fact that once you reach age six (eight, sometimes ten, if you grow up with a vitamin deficiency) you learn to read the story allegorically and not literally. What is "original sin" all about allegorically if not a mechanism to encourage submission to authority?

So I have two distinct reasons for not being religious.  One, I simply don’t believe the stories, and two, it looks for all the world like the gatekeepers of the religions include some pretty awful types of people.  People you should run from.  Once I learned that Jerry Falwell was going to heaven, I tore up my ticket.

And that means I’m up against some serious challenges.  One is I know people, some of them mighty fine people, who do believe the stories.  And who are fighting what I take to be a losing fight to free their religious organizations from the hypocrites and purveyors of violence and deceit who run them.  The challenge is to remain open and honest about my disdain without disrespecting the earnest attempts of these seekers to make sense of the universe the best they can.

When I rejected the church because I couldn’t buy into the doctrines, I also came to lose respect for people who held onto the church for non-doctrinal reasons.  Pascal's wager types, people who don't really believe, but don't want to risk it. Grandma's good little boys and girls, for example. People for whom family and community are everything and who fear that to reject the religion of their birth could well mean being ostracized from the community itself.  Or, as a friend of mine in high school put it, “I have to go to church.  It would break my grandmother’s heart if I didn’t.”

I remember the first time I walked into the cathedral at Chartres.  It was a sunny day and the light coming through those stained-glass windows nearly knocked me to the floor.  If living by grandma's rules doesn't do it for you, the other-worldly beauty of a cathedral can keep you in the loop.

In my case, if anything would make a believer of me again, it would be the music.

I remember the time I attended Harvey Milk’s funeral at Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco.  I had never heard the mourner’s kaddish before and was unprepared for the beauty and the power of it.  I only half-jokingly told friends afterwards that I converted to Judaism in that instant.  I had a musical background and was no stranger to the idea that music had power.  But in that moment, I became convinced I could hear the thousands of years of Jewish suffering in what to my protestant ears was almost embarrassingly raw emotion expressed so exquisitely in song.  I felt a powerful draw, a desire to attach myself to a community of people who had clearly figured out some of the big questions of life and death.  And had the skill to express that knowledge in an honest and creative way.  I have no doubt there must also be people in the world who are believers because of a good performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

My friends Craig and Harriet, both gone now, were for most of the time I knew them pretty much on the same wave length I was on when it came to religion.  So when they told me they had started attending church services at a local church my instant question was,  “Are you out of your mind!?” “No,” Harriet answered me. “I’m not there for the doctrine.  I have just come to realize that there are times when I want to be in the company of other seekers.  It’s not their truth claims that I'm interested in; it’s the fact that they are seekers.”

Builders of cathedrals may say, I suppose, that they do what they do “for the glory of God.”  I filter that through my humanist take on the world and find I have no trouble feeling gratitude that there are seekers who want to express their spiritual longings through the creation of beauty.  Chartres may make you look to the heavens where you think God dwells, and a cantorial chant – or a Gregorian chant – may make you better able to process your feelings of grief or loneliness or simply your mystification at how time flies by and you have come from childhood to senility in the blinking of an eye.

On a superficial level, there are religious crackpots that make me roll on the floor in hysterics.  I’m talking Cindy Jacobs and Pat Robertson here.  I would not want to get rid of them.  They provide as much entertainment as a Saturday Night Live skit.  And on a serious level, there are also people who have managed to channel their religious impulses into music and that music has not just enriched my life but kept me sane and able to fight off the slings and arrows of a sometimes quite hostile reality.  I am grateful beyond words for this music.

Music doesn’t have to be religion-centered to be lofty.  Consider Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, for example, which inolves embracing the death that will come to us all with no mention of a deity.  But often the most profound human emotions are expressed religiously, whether it’s in that wonderful piece in Les Misérables where Jean Valjean asks God to protect a boy, his future son-in-law, that he has come to love as a son.  Especially as Alfie Boe sings it.  

Or almost any of what must be hundreds of good versions of Amazing Grace. Here’s one of my favorites, by Il Divo.  The bagpipes are like Mexican food.  Can be awful.  But when done right – as in this video – they’re the musical equivalent of food for the gods. (And, speaking of gods, you might want to stay with that YouTube link.  Il Divo moves on next to that Leonard Cohen piece that has circled the world countless times now, and regularly reduces all kinds of people to tears, Hallelujah.)

Or all the Ave Marias, Bach chorales, and requiem masses.  And not just the big ones, like Mozart and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. (Here's a nice version done by the Danes.)  But also the requiem by Camille Saint-Saëns, who proved you don’t have to be a believer to write a beautiful requiem.  Verdi, I’m told, wasn’t a believer, either, and he too pulled off a good requiem. Gounod, Dvorak, Gabriel Faure, seems everybody got in on the act, and we’re the richer for it.

Something about death, I guess, clears the throat.  It’s hard to be puffed up and insincere when facing eternity, and it seems to make people want to do their best.

And I keep discovering more and more examples of beauty at death's door.

This week it was Azi Schwartz, the cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue.

Here he is performing at a 9/11 memorial service.

Also in the picture, as if some Renaissance artist had composed it to enhance beauty by juxtaposing it with ugliness, is that sleaze bag Cardinal Dolan, the incarnation of the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, standing two down from the pope.  Mr. Dolan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to hush up the child abuse details, paying off the priests and protecting the church and throwing the kids to the wolves, then later passing himself off as the man who fixed the problem.  He also urged Catholics to civil disobedience to protest granting the right of LGBT people to marry.

But let’s not be distracted by corruption.  Focus on young Azi.  Beautiful face.  And even more beautiful voice.  Has a wife and three kids, I understand.  Cantoring his heart out and reminding me why I converted to Judaism in that instant back in the 70s when Milk was shot.

I never stay Jewish, of course.  But I convert every time I hear a cantor sing.

How could you not?

Have a listen:  here  






Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Erdoğan, Trump and Authoritarian Populism

Erdoğan rally in Cologne
The Holy Roman Empire came to an end at the hands of a 21-year old.  His name was Mehmet and he was the 7th Sultan of the empire in the East begun with the Turkish tribal leader Osman in the late 1200s.  Mehmet, known as “The Conquerer,” took the city of Constantinople, then the capital of the Roman Empire, after a six-week siege in the spring of 1453, effectively ending Christian hegemony in that part of the world.  The Greek Orthodox Church remained intact, but the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), Istanbul’s most famous landmark to this day, became a mosque.  Mehmet named himself Kayser-i-Rum (the Caesar of Rome) and founded the political system that lasted until 1922 when the Ottoman Empire gave way to the Republic of Turkey.  Historians use the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to mark the end of the Middle Ages, so it may be said that the Ottoman Empire began on the day the Middle Ages ended.

Osman was originally Uthman, in the original Arabic, but the th-sound, which exists in some languages (English, Spanish, Greek as well as Arabic) is not found in either Turkish or Persian.  In both those languages, an s was substituted for the th, and you got Osman.  The th became a t in Italian, which then also added a vowel in keeping with the Italian aversion to consonant clusters, and pronounced the name Ottoman.  That was taken up by French, and passed on to English speakers as well.  So in case you wondered, Osman = Ottoman.  No relation to Otto the Short.  Or Otto the Red aka Rufus.  Or any other Otto, for that matter.

[Sorry about that.  I was a linguist in an earlier reincarnation and sometimes things like that pop out like Peter Sellers' Hitler salute in Dr. Strangelove.]

Back to the 21-year old that changed the course of history.  Well no, actually.  He’s done his thing and now it’s up to the Turks to take it from there.  Fast forward through Suleiman the Magnificent into the 20th Century and the competition with the Habsburgs and the eventual alliance with the Germans in World War I.  Gallipoli and Lawrence of Arabia and all that. That alliance would be its undoing.  Everybody knows the triumphalism of the West led to Hitler eventually.  Bad idea, that, to beggar one’s enemies.  Versailles, I mean.  No telling where that will lead.  But besides Versailles, there was also Sèvres, a treaty signed in 1920 forcing the Turks to renounce all non-Turkish territory.  France you take Lebanon and Syria.  Britain, you take Palestine.  The victors tore at the flesh of the Ottoman Empire like hyenas on a gazelle.  (OK, the Ottomans were no gazelle, but give me some space here.)

Enter Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  What we need here, folks, is a modern state.  Off with your fezes, gentlemen, ladies no more headshawls.  We’re going to makes ourselves over to look like France and their policy of laïcité, or secularism.  No more Arabic alphabet.  We’re using the Roman alphabet from now on. Mr. Sultan-Caliph person, we’ll not be needing your services any longer.  We’re going to have ourselves a president and a prime minister now.  Islam, you can stay, but we’re going to follow the example of Protestantism in the Christian countries, and tighten you up where you’ve gotten loose.

Atatürk knew, in other words, that a full-scale attack on Islam would never work.  It was too much a part of the Turkish culture. The solution was what the west had come up with, a way of both protecting religion and protecting ourselves from its power.  We call it separation of church and state.  Enjoy the hell out of your faith, but don’t use it to prevent those who prefer a different faith or none at all.  And to make sure that happens, we’ll keep it out of the public sphere, thank you very much. Oh, and by the way, that means women now get full say in what happens to them.  When they were given the right to vote in 1930, Turkey actually moved ahead of several other Western countries where women’s suffrage was not yet a reality.

Two opposing ideologies emerged, that of the ulema, the “guardians of legal and religious traditions in Islam” and that of the modernisers, known as kemalists, from Kemal Atatürk.  The challenge faced by the kemalists has always been to persuade the opposition, who believe you’re either “fer us or agin’ us,” that there is such a thing as neutrality when it comes to religion.

Zoom ahead once more to the current era where in the United States we routinely leave it up to religious innocents (and not so innocents) and others who believe truth to be what they wish it to be, rather than what the cold hard concrete world of facts tells you it is.  We have somehow managed to squeeze the Middle Class almost out of existence and generate a two-class system.  An elite class that has ignored the rest of us to our own peril, and an "I know what I know" class that aims to fix it. The elite upper class has managed to piss off the other class, which includes the official Catholic Church and the Evangelicals who helped usher Pied Piper Trump into office. We’re now engaged in a culture war where the two sides don't know how to talk to each other.

Which is not to blame both sides equally. How do you talk with a Trump type, who lies for strategic purposes?  How do you talk with a radical evangelical or a jihadist convinced God is on their side?

We might have learned from the Persians...Iranians, who allowed their dictator-shah (with our support - but that's another story) to use his popularity among the elite as an opportunity to screw the religiously unenlightened at the bottom. Look what happened there when the folks at the bottom finally couldn’t take it anymore.  But we don't take lessons from lesser democracies.

Most people in America today pay little attention to the battle going on inside the Roman Catholic church between modernizers who have, among other things, removed the use of Latin in the liturgy, thus making the content of the mass more accessible to worshipers.  Conservatives, including the last pope, Benedict, are fighting to bring back the Latin mass, want the Big-Daddy priest/magician back again.  When the Islamic reforms got started under Atatürk, a similar thing happened, only in spades. The Qu’ran was for centuries available to Turks only in Arabic.  The kemalists had a Turkish translation made and distributed, but it took until 1935 to get it accepted.  And the process was reversed in 1950 when Arabic was restored as the liturgical language of Turkish mosques.  Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back. Language we can understand invites our participation, and ultimately our personal responsibility.  Language reduced to symbolism of tradition and authority suggests we'd be better off leaving that authority in the hands of our betters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for a national referendum to be held this coming April 16th.  Turkish citizens will vote on eighteen proposed amendments to the constitution.  These include getting rid of the role of the prime minister and turning the job over to the president, who could then appoint one or more vice presidents. The executive presidency would replace the parliamentary system.  Executive decrees would take precedent over legislation.  Erdoğan’s party, the Justice and Development (AKP) Party, and its supporters argue Turkey is under threat and the chaos of too much democracy has made the country unstable and unsafe.  All they are asking, they say, is that Turkey give up the parliamentary system common in Europe and move to the American system of a strong executive.  Turkey, they claim, is beset by enemies on all sides, ISIS, Syria, the Kurds, the Turkish military, and the native Islamist organization, the Fethullah Gülen, which they label a terrorist organisation.  Erdoğan maintains that all his enemies were behind the coup against his government last year.  There are now six political parties on the yes side.

The no side claims the referendum signals the end of democracy in Turkey and the implementation of what amounts to dictatorial powers for Erdoğan.  More like the American system, perhaps, they say, but without the checks and balances.  The wishes of the solitary executive will take precedance over both the legislative branch and the judiciary. 

The battles between the two sides are frequent and often violent.  And they are spilling over into Europe, where large populations of Turkish expats with dual citizenship are involved.  Turkish-German relations are at a new low since Germany turned down an application for an Erdoğan rally and Erdoğan responded by describing the event as involving “Nazi-style tactics.”  Didn’t sit well with the Germans.  Holland, too, is on the outs with Erdoğan. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Social Policy Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya were both denied premission to hold rallies among Turkish migrants.  Dutch Prime Minister Rutte was then subjected to the same “Nazi” swipe from Erdoğan as Angela Merkel’s government was.  And now Switzerland and Austria have followed suit.    Erdoğan has control over the media and uses the images of Dutch and German police beating Turks to strengthen his assertion that Turkey is beset by enemies on all fronts.  And as if smearing the Dutch with the Nazi label wasn't enough, Erdoğan decided to put a little icing on the cake. “We know how rotten their character is from their massacre of 8,000 Bosnians there,” he said, referring to the Dutch at Srebrenica.   Since these events, support for the yes side has grown.

I’m obviously working as a rank amateur here.  I’m not a historian and my attempts to see modern developments in Turkey in a historical context are necessarily superficial.  But I sit here marveling at the chutzpah of such outrageous slander on the part of Erdoğan and how much the man resembles Donald Trump.

Donald Trump put Exxon Mobil in charge of the environment, Goldman Sachs in charge of the financial sector, Rick Perry in charge of Energy, a department he vowed to dismantle, and the sister of Erik Prince, the mercenary par excellence who made a fortune in Iraq through his company, Blackwater, headed up by Cheney, in charge of education, when her sole stated purpose in education has been the dismantling of public education.  All his lies and narcissism aside, it gives me a fix on the man.  And so too do these charges against the Dutch tell me much about the character of the man Erdoğan. I'd like to take his arguments seriously that governing Turkey demands a stronger hand these days, but how would you feel if you had lived through the German occupation of Holland and lost family members and friends to the Nazis and you now had to endure the attempts of this moron to paint you as a Nazi?  And it’s true, the 110 Dutch U.N. peacekeepers failed to stop the Serbians from marching in and massacring 8000 Muslim men and boys they were in Bosnia to protect.  But the Dutch government took responsibility for that failure, and admitted the troops were not sufficiently trained and backed up.  It was hardly an act of brutality.  Only one Bosnian Serb was sentenced to prison, by the way.  Erdoğan, like Trump, obviously uses facts filtered through his own self-serving lens to suit his purposes.  “Their massacre?”  The Dutch did the massacring?  I'm to trust this demagogue?

What’s capturing the most attention abroad is Erdoğan’s crackdown.  Since the coup last July, 46,875 people have been arrested; 4070 judges and prosecutors fired, and 7316 academics have lost their jobs.  (The Guardian puts that figure at 5000, but even that figure is astonishing.) 162 journalists have been arrested, including 11 from Cumhuriyet, the country’s oldest newspaper.  2500 journalists have been laid off and 170 media organizations have been shut down. 

Then there are the spin-off effects that Trump and Erdoğan can't be blamed for directly, but are clear indicators that there is something rotten about their approach to politics.  Trump's rallies brought out the KKK and the thugs - the "deplorables" Hillary was referring to when her words got twisted back at her and used to make her sound like an elitist.  Erdoğan's remarks about Germans and Dutch being Nazis have likewise unleashed a flood of deplorables.

One issue that has been brought front and center is the issue of dual citizenship.  If the Turks who have made their home in Germany had been required to renounce their Turkish citizenship, there would be far less animosity between the two countries, since there would be no point in campaigning abroad.  Another unforeseen consequence of “too many freedoms.”  Instead, Germans are outraged by the jailing of one of their citizens, Deniz Yücel, a reporter for Die Welt, Germany’s conservative daily newspaper.  He was jailed in Turkey for reporting on a story involving Erdoğan’s son-in-law which Erdoğan evidently did not consider favorable to his reputation. (It involved the hacking and leak of the son-in-law’s e-mails.)  From a Turkish perspective, this is a domestic matter, since Yücel is obviously Turkish.

I probably should not be making too much of the parallels between Erdoğan and Trump.  There are some; the comparisons are obvious.  The biggest one, as I see it, is Erdoğan’s willingness to use the discontent of the religious folks in the bottom half of society, the ones we are inclined to dismiss as types jerked around by their religion or handicapped by their lack of education in many cases.  A serious social or political analysis might well find plenty of differences to counter these parallels with, I’m sure.  And maybe, for all I know, the vote to move Turkey from a more parliamentary government to a more autocratic one might not be a total disaster.  I’d hate to take the chance, if I were a Turk, but I don’t vote in their elections.

But as I follow the international news these days – as much as I have the stomach for – I have trouble keeping a sense of despair at bay I feel at watching what’s going on with Putin in Russia, Trump in the U.S., Viktor Orban and his yes-man president Janos Ader in Hungary.  Like Putin, Orban is simultaneously painting foreigners as a threat and cracking down on local Hungarian human rights groups.  

Then there's Poland. Some 50,000 people demonstrated in Warsaw in December against their government’s reinstatement of known lawbreakers, an action which the head of the EU labelled a coup.  (That’s socialist candidate for Chancellor Martin Schulz, by the way, who is running against Angela Merkel.) Andrzej Zoll, former president of Poland’s Constitutional Court, warned that “twenty-five years of democratic Poland is coming to an end."

We're waiting at the moment for the result of the election in Holland to see what role Geerd Wilders' nationalists will be playing there.  Then there is Marine LePen and the nationalists in France.  In Germany, too, the AfD party has had alarming victories in recent elections.  National populists are in these days.  And nationalism is a passion one whips together with authoritarianism.  You need a special guy to save the nation.  And you need to give him special powers. 

So far, we have been spared the horror Turkish democrats are experiencing watching thousands of journalists being thrown in jail or prevented from doing their job.  We still have a powerful resistance.  Saturday Night Live, all the evening talk shows, Rachel Maddow, even the mainstream press, are having a field day satirizing the shenanigans and bringing the deceptions of the oligarchy that is the Trump administration to our attention.  I know naysayers claim nobody on the right listens to these folk anymore.  But they are still there and they are still loud and as long as they are free to talk there's possibility.  As long as Trump doesn't succeed in totally discrediting all of them, we're still good.

America likes to think of itself as a unique Zion upon a hill, the exception among nations. Exceptionalism is still part of the ruling orthodoxy and in the American psyche. But there’s no reason why, if we’re willing to spend an hour here and there following what other democracies are up to, we can’t shed that foolish notion once and for all.

If we learn nothing else from the Trump phenomenon, we can at least recognize that we’re not above making the same mistakes as the rest of the world.  That we are equally capable of following a Pied Piper to our own destruction.  That we’re all grown up now and don’t have a daddy anymore to fix all our problems for us.

I know that’s hard.  I miss my daddy sometimes too.









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