Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Winding up?

The end of the year once more, and time once again for a bit of indulging in solipsism - or is it just me? It's tempting to ape all those end-of-year reviews you get on TV, radio etc, to ask oneself 'what have I done?' and writhe about in guilt about all the stuff not completed or not even started, and start making solemn vows about everything that's going to happen in 2014, only to writhe in guilt a year later when it comes  to the next Review Of The Year. 

One thing I have to consider, however, is the fate of this blog. Not, I admit, the first time I've considered it, but the paucity of writing over the past year in particular has been painful to look at. Or not look at, seeing as I haven't written anything. I think this has been a symptom of a general malaise affecting me, or rather the realisation of a simple fact that I've been blind to - namely, I arse around far too much. Of course, I'm not alone in this affliction, but it seems that I do two things simultaneously: a) I lack direction and planning and b) I make things as hard as possible for me to get a direction, mainly because I then go into loads of mini-plans and schemes that give the impression of doing something.
I wonder whether this blog is in fact not part of the latter, hence why I'm considering knocking it on the head.
Let's face it, I've kept it going, if not on the boil, then at least in the vicinity of the kitchen, for nearly eleven years, and it has lived up to its billing as an erratic journal. I also notice that it's read by a sizeable percentage of zero readers, so perhaps it's time to let go.
If I feel that I can actually achieve something more tangible with this, then I shall let it stagger on, in the hope that it will find its own two feet again.
Until I decide, have a Happy New Year.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Adventure In The Trouserlegs Of Time

Have you ever had a dream, whether in the depths of sleep or while lulling through the more tedious aspects of your daily routine, where somewhere out there is another version of you, living a fuller, more complete life, one that consists of far more Adventure, Excitement and Really Wild Stuff than is generally available? Or have you ever considered what would have happened if you had taken a slightly different decision, or the road less travelled, or if you’d not drunken quite that much and ended up in the police cell?

One of the staples of Science Fiction is the Alternate Reality, or where a decision taken takes the whole universe down a whole different Trouserleg of Time. I can recall, in fact, having several dreams where I’ve encountered myself in different dimensions, replicated multiple times in different cosmic scenarios. I have to say I wasn’t too impressed with my alternate lives – they all seemed to be much the same, except for the universes where I had inexplicably died in bizarre and/or highly amusing circumstances. In fact, some scientists postulate that this is entirely possible – the so-called multiverse hypothesis, where every decision causes a whole new universe to pop into existence, so that for every time you went left, a different you went right, and for the You that finds itself hungover in a police cell there’s a brighter, slicker, shinier and generally more sober You that finds him/herself in a far more salubrious environment.

The bastard.

It’s a highly attractive theory – just imagine that you are replicated over and over again in countless myriad universes, free to keep making decisions, sometimes – well, actually, more often than not – making mistakes, but somewhere in this countless number of infinities, in this limitless ocean of repeated times and spaces, there’s a little you who makes all the right decisions and ends up with the perfect life.

The bastard.

I always thought it would be great to be able to travel all across these dimensions, meeting myself, as it were: In fact, there are those who believe that this can, rarely, happen, and accounts for people seeing Dopplegangers, or themselves from the past/future and so on. Unfortunately, I have come to see it as all a bit bunk. And why?

Well, it’s this whole the-decision-causes-the-universe-to-split-off-into-a-new-universe thing. Why a decision? Why not a random chemical interaction? Why not the decay of an atomic particle? Why not a gust of wind? The whole multiverse hypothesis seems to me to rest on the presumption of decisions causing change, which in turn requires the sentience necessary to make a decision, and indeed the self awareness that is in turn necessary to understand that decisions make differences.

In other words, a universe that behaves in such a bizarre way, that it goes and spawns a whole brand new shiny universe that is exactly the same except for one tiny detail, seems to be a bit on the extravagant side. It means that the universe is in effect designed to foster sentience, which strongly suggests that it is, in some way, sentient itself. After all, getting whole new universes popping into existence simply because I decide not to have some jam on my toast is actually quite  a clever asexual reproduction strategy, and means that our universe (whichever one it is now) can keep on going literally ad infinitum.

We should also consider that a lot of what we consider to be decisions based on free will are nothing of the kind, but are pretty much the random outcome of the chemicals sloshing round our brain and/or the interaction with our environment, according to an increasing body of research into brain function and psychology, which means that if the universe is popping out versions of itself based on the fact that my noggin is currently mired in booze, it’s doing it for all the wrong reasons. Unless of course, the cosmos knows I’m pissed, and therefore decides that I’m in no state to go round doing ad hoc universe-popping.

So, the whole idea of a sentience-supporting realm of existence bothers me, because it strongly implies a created system. In addition, it strikes me that one could, in theory at least, eventually develop a computer that could track the movement of every particle in creation from the Big Bang onwards. If so, it would be easy to see how the movement, life and decay of each particle leads to order, then life, then to sentient life, which then, because of the fact that it is being observed, cannot be truly said to be independently sentient, being the outcome of the movement of various Quantum Stuff. And then we’re really buggered, because it means that our universe is Deterministic rather than Relativistic.

In the end, although I wouldn’t mind taking a trip down the different Trouserleg of Time, I think we have to accept that this is all the cosmos we’re going to get, and in fact it doesn’t much give a stuff whether we eat the White Chocolate Magnum or the one covered in chopped hazelnuts.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Watching Paint Dry

The nights are getting longer, the air is getting colder, and one's thoughts finally turn to blogging once more...
Actually, I've not been entirely with my Blog Mojo, having been busy with Other Stuff, such as idly loafing round. So, as is my wont, I thought it's time to blow the dust off the digital page and make you suffer more of my scribblings.
The problem with not writing for a while is that it is hard to get back into the saddle, as it were. Someone I knew, a poet, once said that if he stopped penning stuff for a week, it would take him a month to start writing properly again. In his case, considering the quality of what he produced, it might have been better for everyone concerned if he had taken a gap year or three. It does, however, raise the point about any and all the things we do requiring habit, consistency and work. I've been a teacher for twenty bloody years now, and for me, it's very much an engrained skill - I can walk into a room and just get a lesson rolling, even with the bare minimum of stuff. And that's the result of years of doing the same things, again and again, plus the initial talent I had for actually being able to stand in front of a room full of strangers and make them learn without turning into a gibbering wreck.
So yes, I'm a good teacher, but as a writer, I could be typified as Plain Bloody Evasive. Quite simply, I have the bad habit of doing any kind of displacement activity to avoid putting hand to keyboard. This includes things such as Drawing Pointless Cartoons, Making Stop Motion Films Of Clouds, Spending Time Ironing Creases Into My Underwear, Taking Selfies, the old favourite, Going To The Pub,and indeed, Staring At Nothing In Particular. Notice that I use capitals - this is because these are activities that through continual repetition have become almost time-honoured rituals in Faffing Around, a bit like The State Opening Of Parliament, or The Queen's Speech, except with underpants with a lovely sharp crease. And a beer.
However, the thing is that my life is undergoing quite a few changes at present, and it's made me reappraise what the hell is going on. Now, I don't think I'm actually undergoing a mid-life crisis per se, and I certainly don't feel that the Beige Gene has begun to express itself yet - I have yet to reach the moment in life when one pulls on a pair of trousers of indeterminate colour with an elasticated waist, and thinks, 'Mmmm, these are nice and comfy...' - but what I think is true is that my priorities are just a bit skew-whiff. I don't spend enough time doing what is truly important, and spend too much time sweating the small stuff, such as aspects of my job. I even had a rough night's sleep last night, fretting about a relatively trivial issue at work, until I thought 'why the hell am I letting a problem at work ruin my weekend and my sleep?'
In part, the events in Turkey have made me sit up and see what I'm doing, or rather, not doing - namely, writing, presenting and speaking as much as I should. When I read other bloggers and other people's writing, I always feel slightly ashamed that I haven't done as much. And of course, I say to myself that I will write more, but then DON'T DO IT. It's all very well saying something, but it's only in its execution that something becomes real.
Being someone who spends far too much time in Thinking Up Stuff rather than Doing Stuff, I need to change my habits so that the latter comes to the fore, messy and imperfect though it may be. And messy and imperfect is what this post is, but that's OK really. It's something on the page rather than an imagined Platonic nothing floating in the ether of the mind.

Monday, July 01, 2013

A long walk...

Well, it appears that the world's media has turned its incessantly spectacle-hungry eye away from Turkey, but that doesn't mean that it's still not happening. In fact, there have been protests pretty much non-stop for over the past month, while the AKP has sought to criminalise and threaten everyone left, right and centre, all the while losing face and credibility with the rest of the world.
The shrill tone coming out of Ankara smacks of Grand Guignol - everybody is at fault, it's all the work of Foreign Powers and the Interest Rate Lobby (?? No, me neither), everyone who isn't AKP is some kind of baby-eating atheist - in fact, the more one listens, the more you can hear the petulant squealing of Violet Elizabeth Bott: 'I'm going to thcream and THCREAM until I'm THICK...'
an AKP spokesperson, threatening to scream until they're sick.

It would be amusing if it weren't for the fact that people are not only being threatened with violence, but actually having it meted out, too. A Turkish BBC journalist was denounced as a 'traitor' and 'foreign agent', and started getting death threats; A man was stabbed to death by a man saying 'We are Erdogan's slaves'; An Erasmus student was held illegally for being present during the Gezi protests, then deported; and all the while, the state sifts through millions of tweets and Facebook messages, vowing to hunt down and prosecute the 'ringleaders'. What they haven't really understood is that this is a movement that doesn't have leaders per se, and so it's not something that can be cut to size by targeting a few individuals.
And what is happening while the witch hunt continues? The protests go on, and on, and on. They widen, and take on different issues. Yesterday there was a LGBT parade through the middle of Taksim, to which many people who had never given a thought to gender and sexuality issues flocked. The day before that, there were protests against the shooting of villagers in Lice. There have been standing protests, lying protests, reading protests, and it seems that half of Turkey has woken up to the fact that each and every person has the right to a voice, and that there are issues that should and must be spoken about.
Looking at it from the outside, as I must (and trying to avoid writing this like yet another Analysis Of Turkish Stuff), it seems that the protests have now entered a new phase. The cries of anger and dismay that were so much a part of the initial few weeks on social media have quietened somewhat, but have been replaced by thoughtful, thought-provoking and really quite marvellous challenging of assumptions. But still continuing is the fantastic humour and occasionally genuinely staggering and moving art being produced in huge volumes. The people seem to be finding each and every way possible of expressing their thoughts and feelings, and that, ultimately, can only be a good thing.
The AKP and the police thought they could use force to snuff out the little sapling of protest that they found in Gezi park; Instead, they have only fed something that has spread its boughs and leaves across the whole nation.Maybe it will take time to reach fruition, but my feeling is that these summer months will shape Turkey's future for a very, very long time to come.
Creative Review: the Art of the Turkish Protests

Monday, June 17, 2013

Big State or Big Discussion? The Fight for Turkey's Soul

I thought there was something to be hopeful about before the past weekend, but now I'm not so sure. It seemed that finally Recep Tayyip Erdogan had deigned to listen to some voice other than the one that echoes around the inside of his skull, and that a rapprochement was possible.

Then he went completely Fruit Loop.

The result? The Police re-take Gezi Park, rip it up, re-plant it with several hundred trees and thousands of flowers (in order to show that the AKP, unlike the protesters, is a truly Green party), plants that will have to be ripped up again once the shopping mall/'Ottoman-Style Barracks'/luxury flats/Spaceport for Turkey's first spaceship has been given the go-ahead, scatter protesters, arrest lawyers, doctors and the few independent journalists still working in Turkey, steal a man's piano, fire tear gas into buildings including hospitals and (allegedly) the Dutch Consulate, mix some chemical irritant with the water fired at protesters from the TOMA water cannons, and basically the whole world outside of AKP-land gets the blame.

All for the sake of a tree?

Well, that's how some would still have it. In fact, it's part of an ongoing debate that has been in Turkey for a long time, one that has two parts:
The emergence of democracy as a social construct;
and the role of government and religion in private lives.
This is nothing new. It could be argued that in the UK, much of our history since the Reformation has been about the same subject - for example, what the precise role of the monarch is, what is the relationship between Crown and commoner, what rights do we have to the enjoyment of privacy etc. The American Constitution is very much built on the notion of individual rights and the responsibility of the individual within society. Of course, whether it works in practice or not is a very different thing, but the principles are there. And again and again over the course of the last two hundred years, we have seen societies being united and/or riven by the possibilities and fragilities of democratic process.
What is fascinating is watching it happen in real time in Turkey, thanks to the heroes of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and beyond. Gezi Park itself has been an incredible melting pot of possibilities, and what has been truly notable is the fact that people of so many political and religious persuasions, people who would not normally see eye to eye on a single thing, have found a commonality and a capability to work together. It may not be easy, it may not be quick, they may not be able to agree entirely, but they have sought to compromise and to work together - the very idea of what a community and a society is.They are living refutation of Erdogan's idea that democracy comes but once every election time.
The other issue that is important here is how closely should government interfere with personal liberties, rights, and responsibilities? Turkish people are quite rightly pissed off at Erdogan's incessant micro-management - you half expect him to turn up behind your shoulder while you're having breakfast, and he starts saying 'No, eat the EGG FIRST, then have THE HONEY. Hold your tea LIKE THIS...' - but he is hardly the first Turkish Leader to do this. As I said in an earlier post, Turkish politics is pretty paternalistic, and an awful lot of politicos hear love nothing better than the sound of their own voice, dispensing wisdom: Unfortunately, there are a lot of voters out there who love this sort of thing. Interestingly, an AKP politician today said that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to vote AKP, or indeed vote at all.
Again, this is nothing new - look at any country's history, and you will see that people have protested and rioted for similar reasons - but the protests in Turkey are important because this must be the most widely-disseminated and witnessed protest, thanks to social media platforms, in history. And looking at it, the message is clear - these people love their country deeply and care deeply about what happens to it, but they also want the right to live without the government sticking their noses in where they don't belong. If someone wants to buy a beer after 10 pm, let him. If someone wants to wear a headscarf to university, let her. If two lovers want to kiss in public, whose business is it but their own?
This, however, is a debate for everybody in Turkey, not just the elected few - how much is private conscience a matter of public concern, and to what depth sould government be involved in the affiars of the individual?
For myself, I believe that issues of conscience and faith are essentially private matters, not state ones. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wisely decreed that the Turkish Republic was a secular state, but of course a politician's personal concerns and outlook will always colour the interpretation of the meaning of 'secular' - you just have to look at the USA for examples of that.
The question is this - what kind of state will emerge from all this? A Republic full of parks, piano recitals and discussion, or a Republic patrolled by the iron hand of a man standing behind your shoulder, telling you how exactly you should brush your hair?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Play it again.

And still they stand, and still they protest, and yet still do they refuse to be bowed down. As I write, someone is playing the piano in Taksim Square; a human chain separates the encamped protesters from the ranks of the police, while all over Turkey people continue to voice their disenchantment.
And what does The Sultan do?
He meets a clapped-out 80's singer, purportedly a representative of the #OccupyGezi movement, but in truth someone who'd sell her own daughter for the sake of a bit of publicity. A 'referendum' has been suggested: It's the kind of referendum that you'd give (forgive the pun) turkeys: 'Do you want Christmas to happen now, or later?'
I just feel sickened that I can't do more to help. I tweet, I translate, I pass on news, I sign petitions, but I wish I could do something tangible, something palpable.
But there is this, always this - the power of words, of writing, of standing as witness to truth. So here is me, doing the only thing I really can in this situation - writing, letting my hands pass over the keyboard, stroking the letters into life, now andante, now allegro, sometimes agitato, occasionally lento. The piano player of Taksim square does what he can, bravely; I will do as I am able.
Even before this latest round of horror and vileness, I must say that I never had much time for Turkish  politicians. When I first arrived in Izmir back in 1993, it wasn't long before I had an experience of how much more in-your-face they were, and how clearly they were engaged in rotten practices. Corruption and nepotism were rife, and it was clear to anyone with sense that they were skimming all the wealth of the top. And behind it all lay the rotten corpse of the 1983 constitution, penned by the generals who took over the country in 1980, and who still lurked behind Parliament, ready to raise their hand at any time. Voter participation was relatively poor to apathetic - everyone knew that the likeliest outcome at any time was a hung parliament that would need replacing every couple of years, while the economy carried on out of control.
It was no wonder that the Justice and Development Party, aka the AKP, got in. For the first time, this was a party that a) listened to the poor out in the countryside and in the cities (and by poor, I mean REALLY poor) and b) had enough money to make changes, even if that meant effectively bribing swathes of the electorate. Coupled with this, the public was sick to the back teeth of the lying and corruption, and they thought - believed - that they were about to get a change.
And so it seemed. Credit where credit is due - the AKP made changes that, for a significant proportion of the country, made life much easier. Relatively simple measures, such as creating bus-only lanes in Istanbul, that transformed people's experience of the daily commute into something tolerable, instead of the hellish 3-hour slog it could be. More reliable taxation. A clear attempt to make Turkey a more open, democratic society. A willingness to take tough decisions, including the very brave one of seeking to engage in dialogue with the PKK.
And if they had stopped there, all would be well. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Why? Well, there are the huge capital building projects for starters - it has become increasingly obvious that the Turkish economy, one of the fastest-growing in the world, is based on a desperately overheated building sector, as well as on a very, very fragile service ecnomy. But mostly, the reason why the AKP shouln't be trusted is because it seems that one man has decided that he is the fount of all goodness, truth and everything that has happened in Turkey, ever. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister, has quite simply lost it. He doesn't seem to be capable of listening to anyone - everything has to be His Way or The Highway. His threats over the past few days have been horrendous - 'We will talk to you in language you'll understand', just before a horrific police assault in Taksim and Ankara; His order to the local governor of Istanbul to 'Finish this in 24 hours'; His casual racism - 'They think we don't understand arts and music. They think we're blacks' (he used the word Zenci here, which can be far more derogatory than how I've decided to translate it); his near-hysterical attacks on the protesters, saying first they're beggars and marginals, then looters, then terrorists, and now that they are clearly in the hand of foreign provocateurs, and, tonight, that the jews are to blame.
This is a man, and this is a government, who don't quite get the fact that democracy is not a one-way thing. It's not just some ballot box that you dust down every four years or so. It's something that you have to live with each day, every day, even though that can be so, so easily forgotten. When faced with protests, they've just reverted back to the 'Strong Leader' mentality of crushing dissent, rather thane seeking to engage with those who oppose them. They have chosen to see them as an enemy, rather than as an asset. And what, rather ironically, they have done is create something really quite wonderful - a generation of people who are prepared to fight for what they believe to be right, even if one person's idea of what is right is not exactly the same as someone else's. And that, in the long run, can only be beneficial to Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot last forever; The AKP won't last a thousand years; But the willingness to stand for what you think to be the right thing can last forever.
A man plays a piano in a square. A people sing a new kind of song, and all the world is listening.

Monday, June 03, 2013

....one mighty forest.

And still it continues. I have watched on, somewhat amazed, by the wildfire of protest across the whole of Turkey. From Istanbul to Adana, from Izimir to Ankara, on it goes: thousand upon thousand on the streets, cheered on by the clatter and drum of tin pots, saucepans, kettles and anything that makes a clang from a million balconies. Galatasaryli and Besiktasli and Fenerbacheli, football fans normally at each others' throats, arm in arm, united in opposition to the police; housewives and grandmothers spitting curses at the baton-wielding thugs in uniforms, lawyers at the barricades, JCB drivers blocking roads to guard the protestors, doctors and nurses rushing to set up field hospitals; And everywhere, anyone who can has taken to social networking sites to witness and record what is happening, in marked contrast to a slumbering media. CNN Turk, purportedly a news channel, was showing a documentary about Dolphin Therapy at the height of the battle in Istanbul. Even the international media have been somewhat slow and circumspect in their reportage, although they are beginning to make up for it now.
And at the eye of the storm is Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister. At this time of crisis, you would expect him to be firmly at the helm, seeking to control and alleviate the situation.

He has decided to go on a four-day tour of some North African countries.

He has derided the protests, saying they are the work of 'extremists', 'marauders', 'terrorists', 'alcoholics'.

Where, oh where, did it all go so wrong for him?

Let's not forget that this is the man who was feted internationally for standing up to Israel over the Mavi Marmara episode in 2010. This is the man and government that has rounded on its neighbours when human rights abuses have happened there. This is the government that has started dialogue over the whole Kurdish issue, that has stabilised the whole economy and overseen almost unprecedented growth in the economy.

So why has it all gone wrong?

Simple, really. Erdogan thinks he can do no wrong. He's just a little too fond of moralistic finger-wagging, of seeing himself as a sultan dressed in a business suit, of being The Big Man. It is hubris, plain and simple, the same thing that eventually did for Margaret Thatcher here in the UK.

But it's also about all the acts of fear and deprivation that have been allowed to happen throughout Turkish society: The fear that your phone might be tapped or your tweet or Facebook entry scrutinised, that you are being spied on by the smiling neighbour across the road; It's the fear, for journalists, that one wrong word will see you imprisoned; It's the fear that if you don't dress the right way or say the right thing at the right time that you won't get the job you're after, and the apprehension that you won't get on in life because you don't belong to the right political party.

it's also the resentment -about alcohol prices being raised and raised and sales being restricted, ostensibly to stop public drunkenness (despite Turks having the lowest per capita alcohol consumption rates in Europe), about stopping people kissing in the street, while turning a blind eye to child marriages and honour killings, about the very visible few getting so much richer than the majority, while holding out a few crumbs to the socially disadvantaged.

And nowhere is this fear and resentment felt more than in the cities, where a young urban middle class is coming head to head with a gang of professional politicians who work with impunity, making decisions without consultation or advice, who blithely ignore the fact they are meant to be representatives, not of themselves, but of the people. To be fair, this is noting new: During my time in Turkey (during the 90s), it was clear that the majority of politicos were corrupt. what sticks in the craw with the AKP is that they dare to moralise and impose their own version of morality on the people, while all the time lining their own pockets.

This isn't, yet, a true nationwide revolt, despite appearances - for that to happen, you would need to hear the rustle and roar of the villages, coming forward to protest. Nor is it 'The Turkish Spring' - in fact, Turkey is a far more democratic country that Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, nor are the protesters taking up arms. What it is, however, is bigger than any of the Occupy movements, more vital than anything that has happened in the streets and squares of Greece and Spain, and more inclusive than any, with every kind of person joined arm in arm against the sneering arrogance of The Sultan in Ankara, or whichever country he's jetted off to at the moment.

In short, it is democracy in action - demos + kratos, literally 'people rule'. democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box, it lives and breathes, moves, talks, protests, sings, laughs, cries, eats, sleeps, loves; and it should never, ever be allowed to die. It is a mighty forest, formed of every tree imaginable.

And it appears to my amazed and delighted eyes that one small tree in one small park in a great city, in my beloved Istanbul, in Constantinople, in Tsarigrad, in Byzantium, in the City of a thousand names, has given voice to the rushing roar of the forest in a fierce wind.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Just one little tree.....

It's not much to look at really. Just another park in another big city, surrounded by roads full of dust in the summer and mud in the winter, and always stuffed with noise and fumes. It's not particularly large, or even really that green. If you're a tourist, you may not even realise it's there, as it's easy to pass by as you go to the Metro station or wait for a bus. But in a city where space is at a premium, where outdoor play facilities for children are rare and open spaces fewer still, it's a little green lung. This is Gezi Park in Taksim, Istanbul.

So why am I writing about it? Because, for the past couple of days, thousands of Istanbulites have been protesting there, trying to stop it being razed to the ground. And why is it being destroyed? To make way for yet another shopping mall. A shopping mall financed by leading members of the ruling AKP party, by people with eyes only for a profit. Right now, as I write, the police are attacking what has been a peaceful protest with tear gas grenades, pepper spray and rubber bullets. They are firing the pepper spray directly into people's faces. They have been firing the gas grenades into the metro station, where people not even involved in the protest, including children, have found themselves choking.

All for a few trees in a little park in a big city.

Of course, it's really about something much bigger: about the conflict in Turkey's soul between the aims and ideals of the secular republic and the Islamist desires of the government; about the endless struggle between civil liberties and libertarian greed; about the hunger for control and repression against the right to freedom of expression; It's about fights that take place every day between the over-mighty and the mass of people, all over the world.

This protest over this little park is just the latest act of unveiling the truth about a deeply ugly, authoritarian ruling party, run by billionaires who award business contracts to each other and leech the wealth out of an entire nation, who reward districts that have elected their MPs by channelling state money there while throttling aid to regions that dared vote differently, who censor, ban and imprison, who have a cavalier disregard for human rights, and who get away with it because the Turkish media has become a supine, discombobulated cheerer-on.

The only thing the AKP really worships, it seems, is the power of money.

But in a little park in a big city, surrounded by dust and noise, and right now filled with gas, tears and blood and protest, something, something is happening. The Turkish people have turned, and right now, they are saying 'Enough is ENOUGH'.

The thing is, one little tree is one little tree, but give it time, and it can become a whole forest.

Monday, April 08, 2013


Says it all, really.
It's the kind of headline she would have railed against in one of her trademark tirades, and somewhat ironic, in the light of the announcement from No. 10 that Mrs Thatcher would be accorded a state funeral with military honours.

There was a time when I would have been one of many cheering for the death of Margaret Thatcher; Now, I can't say that I really care that much - she was a very old lady who suffered from dementia and must have felt terrible loneliness after the death of her husband, and I don't wish that on anyone, no matter how much I disagree with them politically. There's rarely anything to celebrate in a person's demise.

To be honest, I started off my teenage days rather admiring her. I was fourteen when the Falklands War happened, and it all seemed terribly exciting. The Labour party of the day were disorganised and extremely poor at getting their point across - besides, no-one trusted them after the debacles of the 70's. Thatcherism and Monetarism seemed to be the way forward, for a while, and it was clear that characters like Arthur Scargill, Michael Foot and Ken Livingstone were at best, irrelevant and at worst Dangerous Commie Sympathisers.

It was only when I got to university and met people from a much, much wider social range that I realsied how much damage and havoc had been created within society - after all, Maggie had once famously said 'There is no such thing as Society!', and it seemed that she was hellbent on dismantling it all. Privatisation after privatisation happened - but where was the money going? Telephones, Water, Gas, Electricity - all the utilities, all put in the hands of whoever bidded the most. Tenants in council housing were allowed to buy their own houses - something that seemed like a great idea at the time, and one that liberated many people. But looking back nearly 30 years later, I wonder - there is not enough social housing, and rents are astronomical because there is such high demand, while Welfare payments for housing go directly to the private landlords who have put the prices up in the first place.
Well, what about the Miners' Strike? Now there was a clash of two mighty egos. I personally have no time whatsoever for Arthur Scargill - I believe he is just as responsible for the loss of all the mining jobs as the Conservative government of 1984-85 was. It was blatantly obvious to anyone with sense that the mining industry had to slim down as it was uncompetitive. It's just that the way it was done was awful - instead of shearing the sheep, it was strung up upside down and slowly, painfully eviscerated. And what for? For the sake of ideology.

Much has been said, and will be said over the next few days, of how divisive a character Margaret Thatcher was, but in fact you can say that of pretty much any major political figure -  Tony Blair over here, Bush (x2), Clinton and Obama over in the US are ones that immediately spring to mind. But why should this be? Well, in my opinion, it comes down to a simple matter of belief, or faith, if you like. When we vote for a party, we invest a bit (or a lot) of ourselves in that group. In fact, this is a well-known phonomenon - for example, if you want to get someone to like you, ask them to do you a favour: They are then much more likely to view you positively and assume that you both share some common bond(s). So, when you believe in someone, or something, you are far more likely to a) defend it and b) refuse to criticise it in any way. Why? because that party, or person is in a way an extension of yourself, your values and your ideals - an attack upon the party or person is in effect an ad hominem attack on you.

And what Margaret Thatcher (and, later, Tony Blair) was all about was BELIEF. She believed with all her soul in what she was doing, and literally could not comprehend any viewpoint that remotely differed from her own. And because she believed, all her acolytes believed all the more. She understood, instinctively I think, that the personal IS political - and, importantly, vice versa.

And it is this, perhaps beyond all the other things - the quelling of the unions, the selling-off of state assets, the unleashing of the stock market - that has so profoundly (dis-)figured the modern political landscape. The personal had become political; the criticism of a political viewpoint becomes an attack upon the person, and the criticism of the person becomes an assault upon  the politics. Look at the past week, where a newspaper's headlines equate the death of six children with the excesses of Welfare. Look at the Chancellor, making political capital out of the same event.

So, no, I won't be small, petty and vindictive in celebrating the death of a little old lady, one who was still, by any reckoning, a remarkable figure of her time. I will celebrate when the destruction her policies unleashed have died away, when we can fairly, honestly and without rancour dispute our political stances, and when we can show that there IS such a thing as Society.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

I believe in.....

Well, that’s Father Christmas packed away for another year, and so begins the deadly dull grind of January. I’m still relatively full of the joys of the season, but it’ll all be eroded away by the middle of the month, mired by lack of cash before payday, the stress of starting up classes, and the dreary weather and dark short days. What I need, you might say, to see me through is having something to believe in, a way of peering ahead into the sunlit uplands of the future.
I must admit, I am absolutely bloody awful at organising things for myself for some distant date, a foible I share with anyone who loves the whooshing noise deadlines make as they approach. It's no problem in a work context - for example, I've already started planning exams for december 2013 - but when it comes to my personal life, for some reason, I tend to be a pessimist whenever I peer forwards – there’s always an ‘Ah, but…’ of a thought lurking in my head, suggesting that Terrible Things May Happen should I plan for anything.  So I tend not to make any great plans, and it is only recently that I have really come to realise how profoundly this has affected my life. Because I see the future dimly, as it were, I don’t make plans. Because I don’t make plans, I tend not to have any solid ambitions. Because I don’t have solid ambitions, I end up drifting along, getting by but not getting on. In short, I lack faith in myself, and my behaviour only exacerbates this paucity of self-belief.
The problem is that this behaviour is so deeply ingrained that it is extremely hard for me to spot when I’m doing it. The only way I have found so far to fight against it is to make lists of activities for the day ahead, and even then I frequently forget to do this, plus there’s this other little voice going ‘Oh, what’s the bloody point?’ Yet on I plod, and I have, over the past year, got better at challenging this deep-down bit of me and persuading myself that I can do much more.
Anyway, that is part of the issue with belief, trust and faith – it is an ingrained thing, a deep-seated part of our psyches, a profound piece of the self, even if in my case it is a faith composed of negative attitudes. Because it is such a fundamental aspect of our being, any challenge towards it is seen as a primordial threat, the psychic equivalent of the lion’s roar on the veldt.
And of course, our beliefs are always the correct ones – if someone else says something that challenges our ideas or suggests a different perspective, it is automatic for us to assume a mentally defensive stance and assume that the other person is wrong, or a complete idiot, or dangerous, or a combination of all three.
Knowing this explains why, for example, people on different sides of a political divide can be quite so bitterly opposed. The Prime Minister may believe he is utterly correct in what he is doing for the country; The Leader of the opposition may consider him to be nothing better than an unhinged, unprincipled huckster without a clue in his soft little head. Likewise, in the United States, the divide between Democrats and Republican has probably never been wider or more bitterly divisive.
Staying in the States, one of the more striking examples of someone believing he is absolutely correct despite massive evidence to the contrary and the opinions of the masses is Wayne LaPierre, Chief of the National Rifle Association in his (to my mind, anyway) extraordinary statement regarding gun use in the light of the Newtown massacre. As he delivered his statement, he was booed down several times by anti-gun protesters. But what difference did their protest make?
Indeed, how can you engage with someone whose beliefs are opposed to(or just plain different from) one’s own?  Clearly, just saying ‘you are wrong’ is going to be ineffective, simply because we all start from the assumption that we are fundamentally ‘correct’ in our opinions and outlook. This core belief in the way we see the world is of course going to be hard to shift because, by and large, we rarely have need of challenging ourselves and the veracity of our perceptions  - and if someone challenges them, we become instinctively defensive. As I said above, an attack on our mental outlook is equated with being an almost physical attack.
This being the case, we have to, if we wish to engage with someone whose ideas we disagree with, rethink the ways and means of engaging their opinions. Saying ‘you are wrong’ outright is absolutely pointless, as it will only lead to the other person becoming more entrenched in their point of view. If we want someone to come round to the same way of thinking as us, it is necessary to persuade them that they have reached the same conclusions as us all by themselves from within the orbit of their own thoughts and beliefs. This entails listening to the other person in the first place – listening and hearing, and, crucially, being prepared to have our own principles, faith and convictions challenged without feeling defensive or offended.
As far as I’m concerned, we should try not to have an emotional attachment to our ‘core’ beliefs, as these essentially grow out of our culture, environment and experiences. However, that is easier said than done: the prime reason that people who are otherwise perfectly reasonable end up attacking what someone else says, or thinks, or does is because, for some reason, we have emotional attachments to that strange part of our minds that deals with faith and belief.
This is why challenging people head on is unlikely to be effective. It is only through persuasion, understanding and questioning without judgement that we can make a difference to the opinions and beliefs of others – and of ourselves. Critical thinking – the capacity to actually look at ourselves and say ‘hold on, why do I think this?’ is an important skill, of course : However, it is far too easy to descend into navel-gazing solipsism if we do it too often. Instead, we need each other to feed new ideas, different perspectives and other ways to understand what we see of the world, and quite frankly it would be awful if we had a single, homogenised perspective.