Turkey, the Pope, and the Renewal of Malice

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President Erdogan of Turkey is a head case. I have degrees in neither psychology nor psychiatry, but my diagnosis is fairly confident all the same.

Look at the palace he has built himself, for starters. Count the journalists in Turkish jails. Add two of the country’s best-known cartoonists who likewise mis-stepped, recently, by “insulting the head of state” with their caricatures of Erdogan.

A boy of sixteen has been indicted for shouting, “Erdogan is a thief!” in the streets.

Miss Turkey is now being investigated for a poem she wrote on Instagram.

Since Erdogan rose from prime minister to president, by direct election last summer, there have been nearly 500 requests to remove Twitter content that his flaks found unflattering. Last week, in case the site was not taking these requests seriously, it was blocked across Turkey.

And so on. Gentle reader may find more on the malign clown who is Turkey’s head of state, by simple Google-search, still even in Turkey.

Perhaps the most damning evidence comes from an image search. A single photograph may be misleading, but after looking at a hundred of Erdogan, one gets the gist. Somewhat beyond humorless, he is what we used to call, “a nasty piece of work.”

Back when I was a hack pundit in respectable daily newspapers, I recall mentioning this. My comparison was of Erdogan to Putin. They seem to suffer from a similar mental disease, such that it is unwise to cross them, however modestly or casually.

Yet it would be unfair to either to suggest he is abnormal, by the standard of history. Most politicians are teched, in one way or another. What makes these two stand out is their inability to conceal it behind a superficial show of charm. Even Stalin knew how to smile for the cameras, and Hitler kissed babies. (Well, Aryan ones at least.)

Malcolm Muggeridge used to make this point, from his own (vast) journalistic experience. He noted, repeatedly, that politicians were crazy: that power invariably went to their heads. Which is not to say they were not unhinged before rising to major public office.

Viewers often thought Mr. Muggeridge was joking. He was a public entertainer, on TV. It is often assumed that when a man speaks lightly, or even makes jokes, he is not serious.

As I know from his late son, John, the elder Muggeridge was reasonably serious. He was also quite astute on the self-importance of journalists. One could say that, in a democracy, the two groups become mutually enabling.

Turkey is very much a democracy, incidentally. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was prime minister for twelve years before deciding it would be more convenient if he were president. Before this he was mayor of Istanbul – another parallel with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who rose from the ranks of the KGB to mayor of St Petersburg, thanks to “events,” before toggling back and forth between prime minister and president in mild observation of the Russian constitution.

Hard-hatted leaders: Putin (left) and Erdogan

Hard-hatted leaders: Putin (left) and Erdogan

Russia is a democracy, too. Both these men are extremely popular. Westerners, who can’t understand why, and Western journalists, who can understand nothing, keep expecting them to lose elections. Instead, they win every time. And the more dangerously they play their game, the more popular they become.

As I have argued before, the great majority in any society is peasants. We all know this was true in feudal environments within, e.g., our own Middle Ages, but few realize it continues to be true, and not only in foreign countries. With or without formal elections, the successful politician will understand this. He will learn how to make his demagogic appeal at the gutter level of “identity politics.” His opponents will not dare to challenge this.

It was the wisdom of Christendom, which curiously includes U.S. Founding Fathers, to recognize this hard fact. “The people” can be harmless until organized in a mob. My own preference is for hereditary arrangements: keep men who seek power away from it.

Or as Shakespeare taught, kings are bad news. But worse are the men who would overthrow them.

All this aside, we must deal with the Erdogans, the Putins, and even the Obamas and Hillaries who will inevitably rise to power once a constitutional order begins to disintegrate in the acids of post-modernity. They know the peasants want “a leader,” and don’t care for details.

This year being the centenary of the largest of the Armenian Massacres, the European Union proposed that its perpetual membership applicant, Turkey, acknowledge the fact that it happened. Our beloved pope added his two euros worth, in rightly commemorating the destruction of so much of this ancient Christian community, in the final moments of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

Even if (as I have written in this space recently) I dislike the word “genocide,” I commend candor. Facts should be acknowledged, including especially the uncomfortable ones.

The USA has struggled to come to terms with a legacy of slavery; Germany has struggled with the Nazi heritage; even the Japanese had their experience of allowing that they had been humiliated for a reason.

Recovery from real evil – personal but also national or collective – begins with acknowledging very disquieting facts. The Turks have never done this, with respect to the Armenians (and many other, if lesser crimes). That after a hundred years they still cannot, speaks plainly of their national spiritual condition.

Indeed, it is not freedom from sin, but this capacity for shame, inculcated in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, that makes it unambiguously superior to other traditions in which shame is systematically externalized. Western man is losing that, by drifting from Christianity, and the consequences must be, quite inevitably, horrific.

But here I add my little quantum of paradox. I don’t think there is much point in accusing the Turks, or putting Erdogan on the spot. He has responded exactly as we should have expected him to respond: with renewed malice.

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About David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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