Thursday, July 21, 2016

Drôle de Coup

“More than 50,000 state employees have been rounded up, sacked or suspended in the days since the coup attempt. On Wednesday, 99 top military officers were charged in connection with the events of the weekend. Officials continued to take action against university and school employees, shutting down educational establishments, banning foreign travel for academics and forcing university heads of faculty to resign.”
—BBC News report, today
It is hard to get away from seeing the world and politics through the prism of Game of Thrones, as I alluded to a couple of weeks ago. More and more—and like a lot of people, I suspect—I find myself looking around and not even finding a choice between bad and worse. It is more of a choice between different kinds of worsts. As so often happens while watching the celebrated HBO series, I find myself disinterested in taking sides. As some U.S. government official was reported to have quipped during the protracted Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, are we allowed to root against both sides? You may think I am speaking primarily of the current American presidential campaign—and that is definitely on my mind—but at the moment I am thinking about Turkey.

It has been a while since we have had such a classic military coup d’état (or attempt at one) in such a strategic country. As we watched it unfold in real time on satellite news channels, I could not help but travel back in time to the coup with which I am most familiar.

In 1973 there was not the 24/7 live coverage of the golpe de estado that unseated and resulted in the death of Salvador Allende in Chile. In those days I learned about it by word of mouth on the campus in France where I was studying and eventually by reading news articles days after the fact. It all seemed very far away and remote from my own personal life. Little did I dream that, three and a half years later, I would be living in Chile and well on my way to having a personally comprehensive understanding of the details of the event and its aftermath. (I have written several blog posts about my time in Chile, beginning with this one.) I heard many first-hand accounts of the coup—mainly from coup supporters at first but increasingly from others as I managed to gain their trust. And I have read quite a bit about it in the years since.

The recent Turkish coup makes interesting comparison to the 1973 Chilean one. It is easy—probably too easy—to imagine that Chile’s history is what Turkey would have experienced if the July 15 coup attempt had succeeded. Conversely, I cannot help but wonder if what Turkey is experiencing today is an indicator of what Chile would have gone through if Allende had prevailed against the military.

The political left’s narrative about Allende and Chile has always highlighted the fact that he was democratically elected. The narrative further posits that he was working arduously to alleviate poverty and to improve people’s lives generally. This version conveniently skips over the fact that he was increasingly ignoring the country’s constitution, was arming a private force controlled by his Socialist Party and was working closely with the repressive Castro regime in Cuba. It is a fair question whether he would have relinquished power at the end of his term. Still, when it comes to taking sides, the principled position is to condemn the overthrow of a democratically elected government.

The same is true in Turkey. Western governments have been unanimous in condemning the Turkish coup attempt and supporting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He was the clear popular choice of Turkish voters during his eleven years as prime minister and in the 2014 presidential election. How could a principled observer not support him? And yet. The coup was carried out with so much incompetence that it defies credulity. Every armchair coup observer knows the first thing you do to take over a government is to capture the head of the government. In this case the vacationing president was left free to go on the net and airwaves to rally his followers. The military uprising was so incompetent that many people are asking seriously if Erdogan himself was behind it to give himself an excuse to assume dictatorial powers. He even called it “a gift from God.”

Sorting out the Turkish situation is complicated by the country’s history. It was actually a military commander, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish republic, after the Ottoman Empire fell during World War I, and made the country a more or less functioning democracy. Erdogan in recent years has increasingly cracked down on his political opponents and been criticized internationally for human rights violations. Even before the coup attempt, he had been limiting the independence of the judiciary. Now he is actually having large numbers of judges arrested.

All of this would be easier to ignore if Turkey were not a member of NATO and a prospective—though probably not anymore—member of the European Union. It also has one of the most formidable militaries in the always volatile Middle East region.

Like so many things we see on TV these days, it is just so difficult to find someone to root for.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


As a treat for (or is it actually exploition of?) the readers of my various blogs, I am trying something I haven’t done before. I have posted a sample excerpt of my new novel, The Three Towers of Afranor, so that people can peruse a bit of it and decide if they are interested in reading the whole thing.

Some of the various sites that sell the book do allow you to view or even download a sample, but I thought I would make my own sample available. This excerpt is essentially the first five or so pages of the first chapter, so you can read the very beginning of the book and get acquainted with some of the characters. I might try putting up another excerpt at some point—if I can settle on one that does not unduly risk spoiling the story.

You can read the excerpt by clicking on this link.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Winter Is Coming, Politically

“Having women make up half of her cabinet would be historic (in recent years, a quarter to a third of cabinet positions have been held by women), and Democrats close to Mrs. Clinton say she may decide to retain Ms. Lynch, the nation’s first black woman to be attorney general, who took office in April 2015.”
 —News story by Patrick Healy in Sunday’s New York Times
The other day I was listening to the BBC World Service’s World Business Report program and I heard the host, Susannah Streeter, preface a question to a guest commentator thusly: “I don’t know whether you are a fan of Game of Thrones, but there are some commentators here in the UK who say that that TV series is like a children’s program compared to what’s going on at the moment in the political scene at Westminster.”

Really? A fictional story that regularly features such incidents as murder, torture, mass slaughter, rape, infanticide, incest and people being burned to death by dragons cannot hold a candle in terms of outrage to the latest political machinations in London? Really?

Okay, I will take off my Mr. Literal hat and take Streeter’s point the way it was no doubt intended. The fact is that many of us have thought more than a bit of HBO’s groundbreaking fantasy series while observing politics in both Europe and the United States. Not because of the levels of carnage on the TV show but because of its world view of moral bleakness and utter hopelessness. Almost all of the characters are (or were; the number of cast members has dropped lately) terribly flawed. Viewers looking for someone to root for have to measure the quality of various rivals with a heavy emphasis on moral relativity. Just when you find a character you can really get behind, she or he is summarily butchered. The most evil of the lot tend to prosper—at least until someone more evil comes along. Lately the noble bastard Jon Snow has looked to be an actual savior for this morally desolate world, but seasoned watchers will not be surprised to have that rug pulled out from under them, like so many others. Queen Daenerys Targaryen generally seems to be a benevolent despot and a great leader, but like many other monarchs in author George R. R. Martin’s world, she has plenty of blood on her hands. (For an interesting take on the Game of Thrones/modern politics comparison, check out Emily Nussbaum’s piece in the latest New Yorker.)

The natural reaction of the usually empathetic viewer is to resist getting emotionally involved, to not get behind anybody in this crazy violent world, to deliberately not pick a side in order to avoid disappointment. And that brings me to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

It is a cliché by now to complain about the terrible choices presented to us by the major American political parties every four years, to badmouth both the Democrat and the Republican. But never has that “pox on both your houses” sentiment felt more real or merited than this year. As usual, it will come down to which candidate turns you off more or, more likely, which party you usually vote for. It is hard not to see a larger number of voters than usual simply staying home. Others will resort to third-party candidates or write-ins. People who actually understand math, however, will realize that every vote or non-vote is a de facto vote for either Clinton or Trump, so you are only fooling yourself if you do not make an explicit choice and act on it.

Both candidates have said and done enough things to disqualify them in a normal election year. So how will voters make the choice? They will choose the same way they usually do—by going for the candidate that comes closest to being “one of us.” That will be decided mainly by how the candidate talks. People who feel that the world is falling apart around them and that the collective elites in government and business do not care will respond to things that Trump says—never mind that his positions seem to change from day to day. People who see Trump as a racist/xenophobe/misogynist will respond to Clinton’s buzz words about being inclusive of minorities, immigrants and women. If those same voters worry about the unfairness of the economic system, well, they will just have to put that aside because, clearly, Clinton (and not Trump) is the choice of Wall Street and the so-called one percent.

They will also have to put aside the fact she may be the most corrupt politician of our generation. Buried in a news story in Sunday’s New York Times was a clear quid pro quo extended in public to Attorney General Loretta Lynch (see above). This came one day after Clinton was questioned for three and a half hours by the FBI and six days after Clinton’s husband had a half-hour private conversation with Lynch aboard her plane. It does not matter what the conversation was about. The signal was sent to the “career prosecutors,” as the attorney general continually refers to them but who, in the end, report to her. In case there is still any doubt, today Clinton is traveling on Air Force One with Lynch’s boss on a campaign swing to North Carolina. People who usually vote Democratic will no doubt process all this in a way to make themselves feel okay about voting for her anyway. And who can blame them? You can hardly expect them to vote for Trump. The main thing Clinton has to worry about is whether her voters are bad at math. Meanwhile Trump’s voters have their own processing to do.

What is most disturbing about all of this is how the United States’ political divisions are hardening segments of the country into groups who see themselves having less and less in common with the other segments. Increasingly each group sees its well-being put at risk by the others. These divisions (white vs. minority, urban vs. rural, religious vs. secular) begin to take on the aspects of clans or tribes. Sadly, this is encouraged by both political parties because, in such a large country, this is the easiest way to engineer a majority vote.

In that respect, yes, America does bear something of resemblance to Westeros. And, as in that fictional realm, the political infighting risks distracting us from more fundamental dangers.