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Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Disease of Division [1]

A year on from Gezi Park, and what has changed?

The answer is, nothing. On the face of it. But what did we expect to change in 365 days? It's the luxurious naivete of the young that allows them to believe we learn easily from the lessons our challenges invariably throw across our path.

Currently the challenge facing many countries is trying to avoid catching a political cold. Coups (for want of a better word) in Thailand and the Ukraine. Regional unrest in China. Riots in Latin America. The continuing rise of the political right in Europe and the United Kingdom.

Some see it as analogous to a sexually transmitted infection: get into bed with right-wing politics and you're bound to catch something unseemly. Countries with even less democratic immunity have also caught the cold, and the whole world seems to be in a stasis of sneezing. Some hold their breath, others hold their nose, in fear of being the next to sneeze.

These are the state of our times, riddled with the pock marks of past troubles. Here is the most chilling, recent example as a backdrop to this article: Europe's Jews say anti-Semitism is on the rise after a gunman shoots dead two men and a woman at the Jewish Museum in the Belgian capital Brussels, a country which leads in anti-Semitic feeling alongside Hungary and France (all the more shameful when you look at their struggle against the Nazis). The Christian conservative and racist political right is indeed on the rise across the continent, not only in the minds of the psychological damaged, but it in the polls of political demarcations.

This infection however, called the politics of division, is nothing new. It isn't a recent disease that infects our modern democratic states; it's a separatist system that helped forge the Western societies we live in today.

If you wish to conquer a majority to your way of thinking, you have to create an opposing minority. And that minority has to be placed across an unapproachable divide to give the majority a reason to exist (or vote) for you.

A Republican, for example, is no good without a Democrat to rub up against. And never the twain shall meet - unless it's politically expedient to do so, of course. This normally means temporarily bonding over any issue that endangers the system itself - i.e., tax avoidance or fraud, challenges to executive power made illegal by legislature, or breaches to its national security; theories that argue for its perpetual state of existence.

Such alliances have brought about some of the worst infringements on human rights in political history. In one of its worst instances, the existence of Guantanamo shames us all, and makes a mockery of the West's claim to the "free world".

It's a misnomer, therefore, to talk of the politics of division as distinct from the political system as a whole, because politics has always been about division.

Politics pushes you to take a side, not just on the issues, but on people and personalities, too. Obviously there are things worth fighting for, such as for human freedoms and the sanctity of life - but rational intelligence commands subtlety and sophistication. I'm not saying we shouldn't form an opinion, but we shouldn't view an opposing side to our own (made monstrous by over generalising and caricatured stereotypes) as somehow irredeemable or unapproachable. The logic of that will always leads us to war.

Tribes (e.g., grouped by religions, race or money) vying to place their national agendas on an international platform have created every single war known to humankind. Irrelevant whether it's about the dominance of one religion over another or taking land or controlling energy resources, it's been about one group trying to outdo another for the benefit of the governing few. About who can outdraw the other in a gunfight. Or who has the bigger guns.

With the democratisation of politics, this might have been done by the backing of a majority, but not for the benefit of it. The majority always pay the price in the end as much as the minority. They do not conscientiously object to giving up their children, creature comforts and taxes to fight the wars of those they elected into office. Perhaps they have been persuaded into it, for whatever reason, but mostly because they believed the policies the politicians spouted about religion, race or money at any given time using the vicious actions of a few on the fringes to scare the many into agreement.

Some will call me a cynic, others a romantic idealist, but in my opinion, no matter with what lofty ideals you marry yourself to political life, the minute you get into bed with it you are susceptible to the viral infections that come with its antics - whichever wing you come under.

Taking Sides in a Democracy

Moreover, national politics is no different from its international counterpart when it comes to the extremities of division. It fractures communities within a country, and leaves its elected officials open to corruption to an ever greater degree. The divisive cold that comes to choke the democratic lungs of a country is only a mild respiratory illness. The flu of tyranny is worse. Both have similar symptoms, but also differ greatly in their results.

Unprotected, even the most well-intentioned politician of the day is susceptible to both, if he or she goes under the misguided belief that there is a clear-cut "them versus us" divide of voters, or beliefs and ideologies to always battle.

For such people, there is always a war to fight; you begin to believe the lies that all means justify the end of protecting your democracy. No human right, or individual freedom is above being censored for what politicians will tout as the patriotic right to defend a country's democracy and national safety from its "enemies". That "other" that has popped up across the centuries - the barbarian, so termed by the ancient Greeks as a way of making fun of the foreign language spoken as unintelligible, "bar bar bar".

If you are not with the "creators of democracy", then it must mean you are against them, which equates to you being against the democracy in your own country. Suddenly, your opinion has made you unpatriotic, and you're threatened with exclusion from the tribe. It's often this mob mentality that censors you from forming your own opinions.

Stick and carrot incentives fill the political arena. Politicians may also promise you political stability and economic wealth, and all the majority have to do in return is give their silent, obedient consent to allow the deconstruction of the democracy under the guise of its protection.

This institutional rebalancing can work either way, to put countries on a more democratic path, but it's a cure often deadlier than the disease. It has been said that you sometimes have to tear things down in the name of progress, but in worse case scenarios it neither puts democracy back on track nor derails it; it just means democracy wasn't there to begin with.

Turkish political affairs is no exception. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (and even a hundred or so years before that) the politics of a dismembered empire were always one by extension, rather than exception.

If Europe sneezed, the Ottomans caught the cold. The empire that had shown such comparative foresight, within the context of its own time, to extend its imperial hand to the persecuted Jews of Spain (even if it was an openly lucrative offer for both sides) would in the next three hundred years dwindle down to the caricature stalwart barbarian depicted in romantic films churned out by the West that plays on the irredeemable - and heathen - evilness of the "other".

In its final death throes, an empire that arguably spans over half a millennia is today tarred and feathered solely by this sickened version of itself and the actions taken in the last few war-rifled years of its reign.

It helps to drive anti-Turkish sentiment; those that fear an emerging powerhouse from a defunct Turkish nation are quick to use the fearful imagery of the marauding Ottoman. But there are those within Turkey, who enjoy watching their country regain some financial stability, that use the Ottoman as some proud history to recapture, too. Both are wrong in my opinion.

I, for one, feel sickened when we use the historical actions or deaths of any human beings as bargaining chips on the political poker table. The Ottomans certainly did a lot worse before its final days, and a lot better, too, and compared to the other great empires of the world was amongst the least bloodthirsty of the ones ever produced in the West.

When political nationalism reared its ugly head towards the end of the 18th Century, the Ottomans were playing catch-up with its cruelty. They've been playing it in one form or another ever since, hopping from one bed of interests into another. And when you're playing catch-up, it usually ends up with finding yourself laid out in the wrong one.

Main | End of Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five | Part six

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