Beware of economists (and historians) – connecting Anzacs and Armenians

My home country, New Zealand, was privileged last week to be visited by an eminent historian from the United States. Professor Jay Winter teaches at Yale University, and is said to be an authority on the First World War,

Well he had nice but sad things to say about New Zealand’s contribution to that horrendous conflict. It seems servicemen from my country died in greater numbers relative to population than those of any other combatant nation – a dubious honour, you’d have to think. Does that make our boys braver, more stupid, or just unlucky?

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Quite a few Indians were sent too, apparently, to “defend” the Empire

In the interview I read, Prof. Winter then proceeded to devote a lot of words to making a connection between New Zealand’s joining the ill-fated Gallipoli invasion, and another tragedy of the “Great” War, the deaths of thousands of Armenian civilians. The link is the date: 24 April is when Armenians remember the day in 1915 when their ancestors in SE Anatolia were rounded up by the Ottoman government and forced to “relocate” to what is now Syria, a lot of them dying on the way. On 25 April in the same year, the British Empire, following a plan championed by War Minister, Winston Churchill, landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula in a vain attempt to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

Prof Winter seems to think he has found something very new and exciting, as every academic dreams of doing. Possibly in his professional writing he actually does manage to make some hitherto unnoticed link that will shine the unequivocal light of day on matters that remain highly contentious. After all, says the learned prof, “Historians are in the truth business.”

Naturally, historians, jealous of their professional reputation, would like to think so – but the sad reality is that history, like economics, is a social science, lending itself to interpretation according to the particular political or ideological lens one uses to view the “facts”. Prof Winter gives a clue to his real purpose in visiting NZ when he suggests that the country’s new “Labour” government may be amenable to joining the ranks of other self-righteous nations that have officially designated the Armenian tragedy “a genocide”, for which the modern Republic of Turkey should be held responsible.

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Genocidal violence with a smiley face

He may be right. Self-styled left-wing parties in the wealthy First World, bereft of ideas for actually changing anything important in the lives of the planet’s 99%, tend to offer crumbs of trendy, fashionable issues to their diminishing ranks of supporters. Barack Obama, in his original presidential campaign, wooed the Armenian lobby, but changed tack later, for reasons best known to himself.

Wiser heads may win the day in NZ too, and not simply because they fear that offending Turkey may earn their globe-trotting citizens a chillier welcome on their annual pilgrimage to Anzac Cove on 25 April.

However sincere Prof Winter may be in his search for truth, certain aspects of this interview gave me cause for concern. First, it appeared on News Hub, a NZ news service that airs on TV Three and radio stations run by MediaWorks. A little digging turned up the interesting fact that MediaWorks is a New Zealand-based television, radio and interactive media company entirely owned by Oaktree Capital Management. And Oaktree Capital Management, according to Wikipedia, “is an American global asset management firm specialising in alternative investment strategies. It is the largest distressed investor in the world, and one of the largest credit investors in the world.”

Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course. Everyone has to make a living, and I’m sorry to hear those guys are distressed. However, the page where that interview appeared contained a link to another article praising “a young Kiwi historian” James Robins, who is apparently “grappl[ing] with the fact that no New Zealand Government has ever formally recognised the genocide of Armenians”. Mr Robins’s “grappling” is supported by a “genocide expert”, Maria Amoudian, and an American heavy metal musician Serj Tankian.

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Genocidal violence with a grumpy face

In the interests of academic objectivity, we might want to also take a look at the work of researchers with less obvious connections to the Armenian diaspora.

One such is Edward J Erickson, a retired regular US Army officer at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, recognised as an authority on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He makes some interesting points in a paper entitled “The Armenian Relocations and OttomanNational Security: Military Necessity or Excuse for Genocide?” I’m quoting a chunk from it, but you really need to read the whole document. It’s only 8 pages long.

“The historical context that led to the events of 1915 is crucial for understanding the framework within which the relocation decision was cast. There are four main historical antecedents that must be understood in order to establish this context:

  1. the activities of the Armenian revolutionary committees (particularly the Dashnaks);
  2. the activities of outside powers supporting the Armenian committees;
  3. the contemporary counter-insurgency practices used by the Great Powers; and
  4. the Ottoman counter-insurgency policies and practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

“Many historians view the outbreak of the First World War as the proximate cause of what some historians refer to as the Armenian Genocide, others as massacres and relocations, and still others as the Events of 1915. To this day, interpretations of this question remain hotly contested by the advocates of the opposing positions. However, both sides agree on the fact that the Ottoman approach to the problem of quelling an insurgency clearly and dramatically changed in 1915 when it shifted from a historical policy of kinetic direct action by large-scale military forces to a new policy of population relocation. The problem then becomes that of explaining how the First World War created the drivers of change that caused this fundamental policy shift. Similarly to the four elements of the historical context, there were also four principal drivers of change created by the war:

  1. the actuality of an insurrection by the Armenian revolutionary committees;
  2. the actuality of allied interventions and support;
  3. the locations of the Armenian population as an existential threat to Ottoman national security; and
  4. the inability of the Ottomans to mass large forces effectively and rapidly to quell the insurgency.

“With respect to the question of whether the relocation was necessary for reason of Ottoman national security in the First World War, the answer is clearly yes. There was a direct threat by the small but capable Armenian revolutionary committees to the lines of communications upon which the logistics of the Ottoman armies on three fronts depended. There was a real belief by the government that the consequences of failing to supply adequately its armies that were contact with the Russians, in particular, surely would lead to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman high command believed it could not take that chance. Pressed by the imperative of national survival to implement an immediate counterinsurgency strategy and operational solution, and in the absence of traditionally available large-scale military forces, the Ottomans chose a strategy based on relocation— itself a highly effective practice pioneered by the Great Powers. The relocation of the Armenian population and the associated destruction of the Armenian revolutionary committees ended an immediate existential threat to the Ottoman state. Although the empire survived to fight on until late 1918 unfortunately thousands of Armenians did not survive the relocation. Correlation is not causation and the existing evidence suggests that the decisions leading to the Armenian relocations in 1915 were reflexive, escalatory, and militarily necessary, rather than simply a convenient excuse for genocide.

Another article you might want to take a look at appeared in The Washington Times, in 2007, around the time Barack Obama was running hot on the Armenian issue.

“Armenian crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Ottoman Turkish and Kurdish populations of eastern and southern Anatolia during World War I and its aftermath have been forgotten amidst congressional preoccupation with placating the vocal and richly financed Armenian lobby.

“Capt. Emory Niles and Arthur Sutherland, on an official 1919 U.S. mission to eastern Anatolia, reported: “In the entire region from Bitlis through Van to Bayezit, we were informed that the damage and destruction had been done by the Armenians, who, after the Russians retired, remained in occupation of the country and who, when the Turkish army advanced, destroyed everything belonging to the Musulmans. Moreover, the Armenians are accused of having committed murder, rape, arson and horrible atrocities of every description upon the Musulman population. At first, we were most incredulous of these stories, but we finally came to believe them, since the testimony was absolutely unanimous and was corroborated by material evidence. For instance, the only quarters left at all intact in the cities of Bitlis and Van are Armenian quarters … while the Musulman quarters were completely destroyed.”

“Niles and Sutherland were fortified by American and German missionaries on the spot in Van. American Clarence Ussher reported that Armenians put the Turkish men “to death,” and, for days, “They burned and murdered.” A German missionary recalled that, “The memory of these entirely helpless Turkish women, defeated and at the mercy of the [Armenians] belongs to the saddest recollections from that time.”

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and all the world will live happily ever after. No need to study history.

“A March 23, 1920, letter of Col. Charles Furlong, an Army intelligence officer and U.S. Delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, to President Woodrow Wilson elaborated: “We hear much, both truth and gross exaggeration of Turkish massacres of Armenians, but little or nothing of the Armenian massacres of Turks. … The recent so-called Marash massacres [of Armenians] have not been substantiated. In fact, in the minds of many who are familiar with the situation, there is a grave question whether it was not the Turk who suffered at the hands of the Armenian and French armed contingents which were known to be occupying that city and vicinity. … Our opportunity to gain the esteem and respect of the Muslim world … will depend much on whether America hears Turkey’s untrammeled voice and evidence which she has never succeeded in placing before the Court of Nations.”

“The United States neglected Col. Furlong’s admonition in 1920, and again last Wednesday. Nothing seems to have changed from those days, when Christian lives were more precious than the lives of the “infidels.”

Will we ever know the truth? Who knows? But one thing is for sure: if you want to stand a chance of learning it, you need to keep an open mind and do your own searching. And beware of “expert” historians (and economists).

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If you don’t think there’s a conspiracy, you’re not paying attention

An interesting article I came across in Time Magazine: “Why Smart People Still Believe Conspiracy Theories”

wall street conspiracyA coterie of academic stooges set out to prove that people who believe in “conspiracy theories” are of sub-normal intelligence. Unfortunately for them, their findings did not confirm their initial hypothesis – so they had to come up with another one, ie people believe what they want to believe. Which is probably equally true of people who insist that there is no conspiracy.

The researchers’ fundamental error was to assume that people who believe there is a conspiracy have no solid evidence to support their belief. Not true, guys and girls.

  • Take a look at the Roman Catholic Church. One huge international conspiracy to keep the poor in slavery.
  • Take a look at Wall Street and the world of international banking and finance. Another monumental conspiracy to hide the truth behind global economic imperialism.
  • Take a look at the United States political system. Another major conspiracy aimed at convincing poor Americans that they actually have a say in how their government rules the country.

trumps-favorite-mcdonalds-meal-is-a-catholic-conspiracyA few extracts from the Time article:

“Millions of Americans believe in conspiracy theories — including plenty of people who you might expect would be smart enough to know better.

Despite mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary, at least 20% of Americans still believe in a link between vaccines and autism, and at least 37% think global warming is a hoax*, according to a 2015 analysis. Even more of us accept the existence of the paranormal: 42% believe in ghosts and 41% in extrasensory perception. And those numbers are stable. A 2014 study by conspiracy experts Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami and Joseph Parent of Note Dame University surveyed 100,000 letters sent to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune from 1890 to 2010 and found that the percentage that argued for one conspiracy theory or another had barely budged over time.

Now, a study published online in the journal Personality and Individual Differences provides new insights into why so many of us believe in things that just aren’t true: In some cases, we simply want to believe.

The second study was similar but also sought to correlate belief in conspiracy theories and the paranormal with overall cognitive ability. To determine this, the people answered a number of questions that measured their numeracy — or basic mathematical skills — and their language abilities.

us democracyWhat’s most troubling — and a little mystifying — is the fact is that so many people in the studies score high on all of the rational and intellectual metrics and yet nonetheless subscribe to disproven theories. That’s the case in the real world too, where highly educated people traffic in conspiratorial nonsense that you’d think they’d reject. In these cases, the study concluded, the reason may simply be that they’re invested—emotionally, ideologically—in believing the conspiracies, and they use their considerable cognitive skills to persuade themselves that what’s untrue is actually true. If you want to believe vaccines are dangerous or that the political party to which you don’t belong is plotting the ruination of America, you’ll build yourself a credible case.”

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*Interestingly US presidents and CEOs of large corporations seem to subscribe to this one!

Populism, Majoritarianism, Democracy and Orwellian Newspeak

On Friday 10 November at 9.05 am the people of Turkey will stop what they are doing, driving to work, labouring on the factory floor, imparting knowledge to reluctant adolescents . . . whatever, and stand for a minute’s silence to mourn the death, in 1938, of their nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

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Atatürk’s mausoleum, Ankara

I was pleased to read in this morning’s newspaper that the country’s AK Party government, often accused of systematically unraveling the secular principles of the great man’s republic, is organising buses to transport people to Anıt Kabir, Atatürk’s monumental mausoleum in Ankara, for a special commemorative ceremony.

At the same time, I was a little disappointed to read that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, outspoken critic of the government, and leader of the minority Republican People’s Party, self-appointed defenders of Atatürk’s republic, is currently in Strasbourg running down his own country and people to eager listeners at a meeting of the Council of Europe.

Of course we admire Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s commitment to defending human rights, if not his attempts to enlist foreign support for overthrowing his own lawfully elected government. We do, however, sincerely hope he’ll be able to get back to Turkey to join his fellow citizens as they give thanks for Atatürk’s historic achievements.

h-is-for-hypocrisy-460x245It’s not easy to get a handle on global or even national politics these days. We  know politicians lie, or at least conceal the truth, even if sometimes they may do it with the best intentions. Unfortunately, there are many who don’t have that excuse.

Nearly 70 years ago English author George Orwell, in his novel “1984”, warned of the dangers of Newspeak and Doublethink – where a nation’s leaders manipulated the meaning of words to limit people’s ability to utter, or even to think rebellious thoughts.

We know what happened to the word “democracy”: the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany), and the Democratic Republic of Congo are two of the more blatantly perverse interpretations of the concept.

But what about “majoritarianism”? That’s a word that entered my vocabulary quite recently, for which I had not previously felt a need. I’m still not sure exactly what benefits it brings to discussions in the world of political science.

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Democracy is slavery – vote neo-liberal!

As I understand it, “majoritarianism” is a pejorative term applied to a political party that has won the right to govern in a democratically fair general election, and is getting on with the job of doing what it was elected to do. The gripe, as far as I can see, is that the “minority” who failed to get their choice of government installed, are unhappy and resentful, and feel they have been hard done by.

Well, the first point that needs to be made, it seems to me, is that the fundamental principle of democracy is: all eligible voters cast their vote and a decision is made on the basis of the majority. What’s the alternative? Minoritarianism?

Now I will admit that, in the United States, the United Kingdom and other primitive “democracies” still operating a “first-past-the-post” electoral system, you may end up with a majority government elected by a minority of voters. We New Zealanders suffered under such a system for years until it was thrown out by a referendum in 1993. More progressive countries, however, like Germany and Turkey, make use of proportional systems that allocate seats in the legislature according to votes actually cast in elections.

I have to tell you I’m a big fan of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He may not have immediately set up a democratic electoral system, but he did inspire his people to throw off the yoke of imperialist domination and set his country on the road to self-determination.

As well as being a successful military leader, Mustafa Kemal was also very knowledgeable in political theory. He built his new republic on the foundation of six basic principles. I am using the Turkish with English equivalents and brief explanations:

  • Cumhuriyetçilik – Republicanism: replacing the hereditary monarchy with an elected head of state and legislature.
  • Milliyetçilik – Nationalism: incorporating the concepts of national sovereignty, self-determination and national pride.
  • Laiklik – Secularism: the separation of religion from the functions of government.
  • İnkilapçılık – Reformism: aiming to modernise a country that had lagged behind Western progress.
  • Devletçilik – Untranslatable. Sometimes the French word Etatism is used. Essentially an economic system aimed at combining the best features of central planning and free enterprise.
  • Halkçılık – Populism: the concept of egalitarianism, replacing the former system where social class and hereditary factors determined a person’s rights and privileges.

Not bad for starters, you may think. But there’s another word that seems to be getting a good deal of bad press these days: “Populism”. And I have to tell you, it’s another one that’s giving me problems. In current use it seems to be applied, at least in the West, to a trend where many voters are supporting right wing, conservative, anti-liberal, anti-immigrant candidates. The prime culprit, of course, is America’s President Trump, but similar trends have been observed in France (Marie le Pen), Austria (the FPO) and Germany (the AfD).

Well I wouldn’t presume to tell Europeans and Americans how to solve their social, economic and political problems. I was, however, seriously disturbed to read that Turkey’s champion of justice and self-styled reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi, has jumped on the Newspeak bandwagon and is decrying the concept of populism.

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Just about off the scale!

Admittedly he is using an imported transliteration “Populizm” instead of the Turkish word “Halkçılık” – but I suspect his hero Mustafa Kemal would not have approved. First because the great man was very insistent on using Turkish words rather than foreign imports; and second, because an egalitarian society lay at the centre of his hopes for the future of his new republic.

Mr Kılıçdaroğlu was quoted in news sources today as saying, “Populism is dangerous and needs to be avoided at all times”. “Populism is very dangerous but we will certainly overcome this.”

The basis of this, I’m afraid, is that Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP (Republican People’s Party) has lost five consecutive general elections, two presidential elections and a referendum since 2002 – and doesn’t look like improving on that dismal record in the foreseeable future. Sour grapes?

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Just as a point of information, Turkey is currently doing its best to cope with more than three million refugees who have entered the country since civil war broke out in neighbouring Syria six years ago, so at least on the immigration score, it’s hard to fault its government.

 

Western media’s love affair with Orhan Pamuk

“They have killed the Istanbul I loved” – a plaintive cry from Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk in an interview he gave recently to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Apparently the poor guy can’t live there any more because his memories have been destroyed.

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Longing for the good old days

Well, I can empathise with Mr Pamuk’s problem. It’s a function of getting old, I guess, and of spending a lot of time away from the place of your birth. I haven’t lived in my hometown Auckland for 16 years. When I go back for a visit now, I hardly recognise the place I once knew so well. But there’s no use crying about it. It’s the way of the world. Some Native Americans possibly wish they could turn back the clock to a time before those Palefaces arrived – but sad to say, they can’t. There is a Turkish saying, “İt havlar kervan yürür”“The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.”

But Orhan Pamuk likes to bark, especially in the cause of selling more books – a shameless self-publicist who has no scruples about running down his own country and people to further his own “literary” career.

It’s an interesting exercise to follow interviews Pamuk has given to western journalists over the years, and to observe how his projected self-image has morphed according to his own self-seeking agenda. In the La Stampa interview he says he is “jealous of Western writers” as they are not constantly questioned about politics by interviewers. He claims he has been forced to answer politically charged questions and this has “turned him into a political writer.” This is the guy who, back in 2005, speaking to a Swiss journalist, said that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it”.

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Rubbing shoulders with ordinary Turks in his school days – NOT!

Well, those are politically charged issues in Turkey, as Pamuk knew full well – and many Turks were of the opinion that he was making such statements with a view to attracting the attention of the Nobel Awards committee. It’s a well-known fact that novelists from developing countries unpopular in the West who criticise their own governments give themselves a head start in the race for Nobel honours. When Pamuk achieved his goal of Nobel literary honours in 2006, Turkey’s President at the time, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, broke with his normal practice of congratulating high achieving Turks, and refused to acknowledge his countryman’s Nobel Prize. It should also be noted that Sezer was not aligned with the current AK Party government, but held the presidency by appointment of an earlier secular republican Kemalist administration.

But to return to the Italian report, Pamuk acknowledges that he spends much of his time in New York City, so we can understand that he will be somewhat out of touch with developments back home. “The old houses I love have been destroyed,” he laments. Well, the guy grew up in the old money quarter of Nişantaşı, with parents wealthy enough to send him to the elite American Robert College, to buy carloads of books to feed his passion for reading, and to support him while he dropped in and out of university without ever troubling himself to work for a living. If he had ventured, as a young man, to other parts of his beloved Istanbul during the 1970s and 80s, he would have seen vast swathes of old wooden Ottoman houses bulldozed and replaced by slum shanties for migrant workers from the east of Turkey. But he didn’t. And one thing is definitely true about Mr Pamuk – he was no youthful revolutionary idealist activist during Turkey’s most turbulent period of political upheaval in those decades. In a New York Times interview in 2014, he further admitted that, while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers, he spent most days reading at home in Nişantaşı.”

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Let’s go shopping – in Nişantaşı 😉

In contrast, then, one of the images Pamuk likes to create for himself is that of a lone courageous voice calling his government to task for historical human rights abuses. He was charged, he loves to repeat, with treason for his outspoken support of Armenians and Kurds, and lived abroad in virtual exile for fear of incarceration or worse. What he omits to say is that the charges were brought by an ultra-nationalist private citizen, not the Turkish government, and were subsequently dropped.

But the Western media love him – and that’s probably another reason to be suspicious.

Democracy under threat in New Zealand

Citizens in Germany and New Zealand have just exercised their democratic right to elect representatives to their countries’ parliaments. The results are not dissimilar but response from the media and mainstream politicians has been remarkably different.

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New Zealand is one of them – and Big Business doesn’t like it!

In Germany, the party led by Chancellor Angela Merkel won 33% of the popular vote, and 35% of the seats in the Bundestag. She, the country’s news media and most Germans expect Ms Merkel to continue as Chancellor after forming a coalition with one or two other parties. That’s the way the system works. It’s called Proportional Representation, and allocates seats in the nation’s legislature to parties according to the number of votes they receive. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? No moaning and grumbling – just get on with the job. As they do in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and many other civilised countries using a PR electoral system.

But take a look at what’s happening in New Zealand. The governing conservative National Party gained 46% of the vote and a proportional number of seats in the House of Representatives; the Labour Party, 36%, and two minor parties, around 8% and 6%, entitling their supporters to some representation in parliament.

And listen to the uproar! The news media are filling their pages with black propaganda against Winston Peters, leader of the tiny NZ First Party:

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An orchestrated campaign to turn back the clock

“New Zealand’s hung parliament”

“The New Zealand First leader and kingmaker”

“Winston Peters, who currently holds the country’s future in his hands”

Kingmaker? Does that mean that the Prime Minister of New Zealand, almost always from the big business National Party, exercises the power of a monarch? More or less, yes!

Certainly Big Business does not like the MMP system of proportional representation that citizens in New Zealand worked so hard to bring in in 1994. And I guess they are also not keen on Mr Peters, who campaigned against business “fat cats”, and has been harshly criticising the size of exit packages dished out to departing corporate CEOs.

Interestingly, voter turnout in NZ parliamentary elections has been increasing in recent years, possibly as voters start to realise the power MMP gives them to exercise some control over the actions of the government. This year the turnout was 79%, similar to Germany’s 76%.

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Not much has changed in the US. The best democracy money can buy!

Compare that to the United States of America, land of the free and loudest trumpeter of its hallowed democracy. In the 2016 election that brought Donald Trump to the world stage, only 58% of American voters bothered exercising their right. Two years previously, in the mid-term election for representatives to Congress, a mere 36% turned out.

I’m sure there is nothing Big Business in New Zealand would like better than to return to the old First-past-the-post voting system where the National Party used to regularly govern alone despite winning fewer than half of the popular votes, and sometimes fewer than the main opposition party.

When you have been the government for most of the last 70 years, you have had ample opportunity to “adjust” the system to ensure you continue to do so. Now it seems they are dragging out the counting of special votes to build up pressure on the small parties, and to persuade the New Zealand public that the system is bad. And they have the news media in their pocket. As always, prior to the election, the tame media once again built up the pathetic Labour Party into a “credible” opposition to ensure that the “minor” parties stayed that way.

When all the shouting is over, poor New Zealanders can look forward to another four years of being screwed by Big Business and their National Party stooges.

Remembering and revising history – Smash that statue!

It seems to have become a worldwide phenomenon recently, almost an epidemic – statue-smashing. It used to be just Islamic fundamentalists – the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example – but suddenly everyone seems to be doing it, and I have to tell you, I’m confused.

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Diogenes the Cynic

Of course, religious fanatics are still at it. In Turkey there’s been a spate of attacks on statues of Atatürk, the revered founder of the Republic. And in Sinop on the Black Sea coast, members of a local conservative religious foundation have taken exception to the effigy of an ancient Greek philosopher that stands on the outskirts of town, demanding its removal.

Well it’s easy to dismiss religious fundamentalists as cranks and nutcases, but clearly there are political motives at work too. We’ve been following with interest events in the USA, where violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia over some controversial statuary, and the trouble has apparently spread further afield. Hundreds of protestors gathered at the campus of North Carolina University insisting that a statue of a Confederate soldier be torn down. Adding fuel to the fire, a prominent businessman, politician and diplomat, Ray Mabus, called such images “monuments to treason” and insisted that they “must be removed now and forever”.

Meanwhile, a news item from Australia informed me that “there is fury” over a statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. In this case, it’s not so much the figurine itself raising hackles, but the inscription on the pedestal claiming that the 18th century British explorer “discovered this territory”. Spokespersons for the indigenous aboriginal community are pointing out that the country wasn’t actually in need of discovering since there had been people living there for 60,000 years or so.

Carrot

Carrot adventures

So who’s right, and who’s at fault? Clearly human beings love making graven images – have done since time immemorial – to remember a famous person, to commemorate an event, to show off their wealth or prestige, to worship in place of an invisible deity . . . Most of the time they sit discreetly on their plinths quietly collecting verdigris and bird droppings. Some people think having an enormous model of a carrot (yes, a carrot!) in the New Zealand town of Ohakune is a great idea. Others think it’s pretty stupid, but no one seems to get overcome with blind destructive hatred. Same goes for the giant lobster in Kingston, South Australia. Some local authority in Paris, France, had a 12-metre, 18-tonne bronze thumb erected in their neighbourhood, and I haven’t heard of any complaints. Akşehir in Turkey, birthplace of Nasrddin Hodja, contains several sculptures of the legendary folk philosopher, of which citizens are rather proud.

On the other hand, America’s one-time allies in Afghanistan, the Taliban, attracted much international ire when, a few years ago, they dynamited several large statues of Buddha at the ancient site of Bamiyan. It seems the heresies implicit in the Buddhas overrode any historical value they may have had – at least in the opinion of the dynamiters.

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One of the Buddhas – before the dynamiting

This, then, seems to be the nub of the problem. Carrots, lobsters and thumbs are relatively neutral when it comes to arousing emotional response, either positive or negative. Representations of religion, politics (and sex), however, stir strong feelings. In the years after the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity, zealots of the new faith journeyed around the temples of earlier ages chiselling off female breasts and male appendages from carvings they considered immoral.

We in the post-modern world like to think of ourselves as more enlightened, but many of us have sympathy for the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, who may not have felt the same way about colonial invaders using superior technological might to steal their land and birthright. So what to do about Captain Cook? Remove the statue? Edit the inscription? Is this, as one politician asserted, “Stalinist revision”, or belated sensitive recognition that the ancestors of the aboriginal inhabitants have a valid point?

What about that statue in the Black Sea town? Diogenes the Cynic is believed to have been born there in the early 5th century BCE when it was an Ionian colony, Sinope. Cynical he may have been, but the poor man can hardly be blamed for the tragic events that unfolded a century ago after the Greek military invasion of Anatolia. Feelings still run high in some circles, on both sides of the Aegean, but I suspect current objections to Diogenes represent a small minority of opinion. Attitudes to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, however, are a far more controversial issue in Turkey. For decades a small elite backed by a powerful military controlled the country, fostering a cult-like adoration of the national hero to suppress religious and political opposition to their rule. I read an interesting article the other day in a Turkish newspaper entitled, “Let’s just stop abusing Atatürk.” The writer, Nazlan Ertan, was finding fault with the pseudo-faithful, who decorate their car rear windows with his signature, prefix their Facebook accounts with the initials TC, and claim to know how the great man would vote in elections and referenda if he were around today. And she has a point.

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Robert E Lee in Charlottesville

All of which brings me to the most recent controversy over symbolic statuary – the one currently raging in the United States over the question of whether representations of Confederate heroes or their cause should be permitted in public places. Personally, I don’t care one way or the other, but it seems to me that the issue has become a focus for the lovers and haters of President Donald Trump to vent their hyperactive spleens. And the man does seem to have polarised opinion in the USA in a way that few of his predecessors were able to do. What is clear is that there is still some feeling in Southern states of the old Confederacy that their cause was just, and they were unfairly treated. It seems also certain that the victors, as is generally the case, wrote the history books with their version of the story. Was slavery the only, or even the main issue over which the Civil war was fought? Were those soldiers of the Union really fighting for the rights of black Americans to be treated equally? I have read suggestions that Abe Lincoln himself wasn’t 100% certain about that. Were their opponents in the Confederate army all slave-owners or believers in the system?

More and more of American history is being shown up as mythology and politically motivated censorship. Books such as James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States (and its associated TV documentary series) and Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, are highlighting serious cracks in the foundations of the American ideal. Maybe we should just pull down all the statues everywhere until we sort the whole business out.

Champions of Democracy – Sweden, Turkey and Ecuador

It seems as long as I can remember, Scandinavian countries, Sweden and Norway, and their neighbours, Finland and Denmark, have been held up as models of civilised behaviour and individual freedom, as paragons of democracy, excellence in education and pretty much everything else that’s good and true. Check out any list you like, you’ll find them right up there near the top:

  • Transparency? Denmark 1st, Finland 3rd, Sweden 4th, Norway 6th.
  • Standard of living? Norway 1st, Denmark 3rd, Sweden 6th, Finland 8th.
  • Press freedom? Norway 1st, Sweden 2nd, Finland 3rd, Denmark 4th.
  • Women’s rights? Finland 2nd, Norway 3rd, Sweden 4th.
  • LGBT rights? Sweden 4th, Norway 6th, Denmark 7th.
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Swedish women standing up for their rights

So I suppose they may feel justified in adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude towards us less enlightened mortals lower down the scale. Look at Turkey! 75th place on the transparency list (well, at least that’s over half way!); 130th for women’s’ rights; 36th out of 38 OECD countries for standard of living; 46th out of 49 in Europe for LGBT rights! And that’s before we get started on freedom of the press! 162 journalists in prison! Or 81, or more than 200, depending on which source you believe. You’d wonder if there was anyone left to report the news.

Then I decided to check one or two statistics. I found that, according to official figures, there 2,459 published newspapers in Turkey, including 55 broad circulations dailies, 23 regional and 2,381 local rags! So I guess there must be a few journalists still scribbling. And then there are the television channels: 27 national, 16 regional and 215 local! Magazines? 2,522. Radio stations? 87. Furthermore, around the country there are 33 tertiary communications faculties catering for 5,000 students each year. So it seems the government has its work cut out if its going to be successful in stifling dissent.

Another aspect of the problem lies in defining exactly what a “journalist” is? Am I a journalist when I write this blog? Is Julian Assange a journalist? Possibly that accounts for the difficulty in counting how many of us are in prison.

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Rule One: Don’t blink or you’ll miss the daylight

Don’t you love statistics? I switched tack and researched a few more. I found that per capita consumption of alcohol is more than five times higher in Denmark and Finland than in Turkey; four times higher in Sweden and 3.5 times higher in Norway. I learned that, among 37 OECD countries, Turkey has the second-lowest suicide rate – with far fewer people topping themselves than in those self-righteous north European paradises. Maybe it has something to do with the climate, I thought. Average annual temperatures in Helsinki (high, low) are 9° C and 1° C; in Oslo, 10° and 2°; in Stockholm, 10° and 4°, and Copenhagen, 11° and 5°. From November to February, Stockholm averages 7.5 hours of daylight per day. So nowhere’s perfect, right?

Still, I was a little disappointed to read the other day that Sweden is obstructing the government of Turkey in its attempts to extradite from Spain a “journalist” they accuse of spreading terrorist propaganda. Hamza Yalçın apparently took refuge in Sweden in 1984, after spending some time in prison for political activities at a time when Turkey was roiling in violence from the extreme left and right. He was involved with an anarchist organisation that openly advocated violence to overthrow whichever government was in. Street violence ended when a military junta seized power in 1980, the third such takeover in twenty years.

It seems Sweden granted citizenship to Mr Yalçın, but he chose to retain his Turkish status – which is why that government feels it has the right to call him to account. You would think Yalçın might have been happy with the current government of Turkey since they have managed to pull the teeth of the country’s formerly all-powerful military – and it has been twenty years since they were last able to overthrow an elected government. Since he has been in Sweden, however, Hamza has continued his involvement in the political situation back home – criticising the government in a Turkish language magazine Odak (Focus). Turkish authorities issued an international warrant for his arrest. He was picked up by local police at Barcelona Airport and is being held in custody while a Spanish court decides whether or not to extradite him to Turkey. Enter the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom, who is reportedly working to ensure the poor man gets his rights.

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Vikings enjoying a few drinks

On the plus side for Sweden, I hear they have decided to drop their rape investigation against Julian Assange. The Wikileaks founder was granted sanctuary in the Ecuador Embassy in London after British courts had agreed to extradite him to Sweden, despite the fact that no actual charges had been laid. While he admits having sex with the two women concerned, Assange maintains that relations were mutually consensual. And you have to admit, the guy doesn’t fit your picture of a typical rapist. The women concerned are aged 27 and 31 respectively, not underage schoolgirls – and Sweden does have a long-standing reputation for moral flexibility in the field of sexual relations. Still, it’s a woman’s right to say “No” – though on the whole it’s probably better to say it loudly and clearly before taking a guy you don’t know very well back to your flat, getting naked and climbing into bed with him.

Assange, for his part, is certain that the rape accusations were fabricated to get him to Sweden whence he could then be extradited to the United States, where authorities would very much like to try him for spying, treason, conspiracy or whatever, lock him up in a penitentiary somewhere and throw away the key. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

So let’s take a look at our trio of democracies:

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Didn’t get quite as much coverage in the West as that iconic pic from Tiananmen Square

  • Turkey, the world’s second-highest provider of international aid; whose head of state is the first democratically elected president in the 94-year history of the republic; governed by a political party that has gained majority popular support in 7 elections since 2002; currently struggling to feed, house and employ three million refugees from the civil war in Syria; whose people last year faced down guns and tanks to thwart an attempted military coup.
  • Ecuador, Latin America’s largest recipient of refugees, with net annual immigration; whose government has, for five years, courageously stood up to pressure from powerful governments to protect the right of press freedom; whose president for ten years, Rafael Correa, worked tirelessly to ameliorate high poverty and inequality and improve health and education services (even the CIA World Factbook website admits this!) in the face of powerful opposition.
  • Sweden, cooperating with the world’s number one imperialist super-power to help them silence brave voices working to reveal the extent of their lies and evil actions; and siding with other hypocritical European “democracies” (Greece and Germany) to harbour traitors and terrorists lawfully sought for trial by the government of Turkey.

Who gets your vote?