We fortunate denizens of the First World may not think about it too much – but there is a dominant culture on Planet Earth. It’s not all about the English language – but that’s a big part of it. It’s not all about the United States of America – but that’s a big part of it too. Clearly science and technology play a major role, as do economics (Wall Street and the Yankee dollar), oil and coffee beans.
The good people at Columbia University, NY, are to be congratulated for publishing a series of books, “Studies in International and Global History” examining “the transnational and global processes that have shaped the contemporary world.” Their aim, they say, is to “transcend the usual area boundaries and address questions of how history can help us understand contemporary problems, including poverty, inequality, power, political violence and accountability beyond the nation state.”
It’s a worthy aim – and if Perin Gürel’s book “The Limits of Westernization – A Cultural History of America in Turkey” is representative of the series, in my opinion, Columbia Press is on to a good thing. Gürel is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, an American citizen of Turkish parentage. She is balancing the demands of family and motherhood with a promising academic career, and dedicates this, her first book, to her daughter, Marjane Honey: “May you always keep your love of learning and sense of humor entangled.” Amen! Marjane’s mother seems to be managing, so there is hope for the little one.
In her acknowledgements, Gürel pays generous tribute to a host of academics, friends and family members who she modestly accepts as co-authors of her book, and pre-empts possible criticism by admitting that this work “impetuously pushes the limits of inter/multidisciplinarity”. For me, that is undoubtedly its main strength.
Counting its introduction and postscript, the book’s 200 pages contain six chapters. The essence of Gürel’s thesis relates to the dilemma faced by countries that do not, by birthright, belong to the First World. As the Chinese, Native Americans and the Maori of New Zealand learned, isolating yourself from the dominant culture is not an option. They won’t let you. If you are lucky and sufficiently determined, you may try to find a balance between embracing “modernity”, and preserving the integrity of your native culture. “The Limits of Westernization” discusses aspects of this dilemma using the modern Republic of Turkey as a case study.
Gürel is an academic, writing primarily for her academic peers. Nevertheless, she has managed, at the same time, to produce a work that is meaningful and accessible to the non-specialist lay reader – a commendable achievement!
In her introduction, Gürel outlines the key problem facing Turkey and other developing countries: the siren attraction of modernity, epitomised in the contemporary world by the United States of America, and the fear that the overpowering dominance of that attraction will subvert and destroy the indigenous culture. The leaders/governments of those developing countries attempt to control and direct the process of modernisation/Westernization – while simultaneously, a wild Westernization beyond their control is inevitably taking place.
Chapter One looks at the historical narrative, examining the declining years of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the modern Republic of Turkey. Gürel discusses the way “history” has been manipulated, in Turkey and the United States, to assist the creation of a national identity. In particular, she focuses on a woman, Halide Edip Adıvar, who seems to exemplify the ambivalence implicit in the emergence of the new Republic.
Chapter Two comes at the issue from a literary angle, and deals with the evolution of the novel in Turkish as writers tried to make sense of the rapidly changing social milieu. The key theme is that allegory was an important aspect of earlier Ottoman literature which exponents of the new genre continued to employ in their attempts to shed light on the seismic changes taking place around them.
In the third chapter, Gürel leaps into the culturally ambiguous realm of humour. In what is perhaps the most perceptive and, for a Western reader, the most entertaining and eye-opening chapter, she gives an overview of the way humour has played a part in reflecting and moulding Turkish attitudes to foreigners over the centuries.
The final chapter deals with issues of sexual identity, in particular contrasting the modern imported concepts of gay-ness/queer-ness, with more traditional attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles. I have to confess, the generation gap kicked in here. I know this is a crucial issue for Millennials. If I were writing the book I might have wound up with a chapter on economics – but there you are.
Gürel’s postscript picks up the “Clash of Civilisations” idea popularised by Samuel Huntington. That writer referred to Turkey as a “torn country” – a disparaging term suggesting that Turkey was “fickle” and unable to decide if it wanted to be East or West. Gürel makes the point that “Turkey was never formally colonised”, and consequently had more room to manoeuvre in the process of modernisation. Nevertheless, she notes that, as the “War on Terror” has moved to the forefront of Western politics, Turkey has suffered from a wilful ignorance – a growing belief in Western countries that Turkey cannot be understood, therefore it is useless to try. “That way,” as Shakespeare’s Lear observed, “madness lies.” Full marks to Perin Gürel for showing us another road.
Perin E Gürel
Columbia University Press (May 30, 2017)