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Manufacturing Victimhood

Clare O’Dea

How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship. by Ece Temelkuran, 4th Estate, 272 pp, ISBN: 978-0008296353

The award-winning Turkish novelist and political commentator Ece Temelkuran played a prominent role in public life as a critic of the Erdogan regime until it was no longer safe for her to stay in Turkey. In How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, she passes on her hard-earned wisdom as a dissident who experienced first-hand the slide towards right-wing authoritarianism.  

Temelkuran knows the populist playbook inside out. Now living in exile in Zagreb and travelling frequently for work in Europe and the US, she is ideally placed to identify the parallels between the path taken by Turkey and recent developments in Western democracies, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. Almost like a voice from the future come to warn us, Temelkuran writes, “As our story ends, yours is only just beginning.”

The first of the seven steps identified by the author is the creation of a movement, as distinct from a political party. The movement champions the so-called real people, defined as those who have been neglected or oppressed under the current status quo. It poses as the new broom that will sweep clean, targeting the enemies of the real people, who range from the most powerful elites to the most humble immigrants.

While Temelkuran acknowledges that there is real suffering and genuine victimhood behind these movements, she maintains that “they do not only emerge from real suffering, but also from manufactured victimhood”.

It is this manufactured victimhood that provides the movement with most of its energy and creates its unique characteristics, she argues. In truth, the populist movements are a vehicle for the rich to deregulate the economy and divide the spoils among their cronies.

In the Turkish narrative, religious people were cast as the victims, oppressed and humiliated by the secular elite of the establishment. Erdogan’s promise was that, under his leadership, they would finally get the respect – and the society – that they deserved.

According to the political discourse in the UK and US, Hungary and elsewhere, the condescending elite (in Brussels/Washington/Berlin) is standing in the way of better lives for ordinary people, as well as the nation’s “greatness”.

Once the loyalty of the target audience has been captured, the tactics involve “throwing the entire political field into disarray”. This disruption takes the form of the infantilisation of political language backed up by a constant barrage of outrageous statements and acts that undermine common assumptions about what is reasonable or true.

Meanwhile, attempts by individuals to resist this political wave online are met by aggressive trolls, “the digital pit bulls trained to bully away proper communication etiquette, rationality and substance from the social media sphere”. These trolls are eagerly imitated by volunteers in what Temelkuran calls “the militias of immorality”, who adopt the same tactics and level of cruelty as their paid role models.

The goal of all this is to remove a sense of shame from the public sphere. “When morality is exiled from public life and isolated in the private space of the individual, to be enjoyed only at certain times in our day, how can we know with any certainty that shame and mercy are shared concepts? And how can we convince people not to commit evil in those realms of public life from which law enforcement is absent?” Temelkuran asks.

Once this climate has been created, it is possible for the authoritarian leader to move on to the stage of dismantling judicial and political mechanisms.

Old and new democracies alike are increasingly being taken over by mafia-type regimes, where citizens have turned towards a godfather figure for protection. This is a product of the ethical vacuum of neo-liberalism, the author argues, a process which has been exacerbated by the kind of intense but empty connections created by the internet.

The human mind had been left uncultivated through decades of depoliticization, and this in turn provided fertile ground for those who claimed to have a cause to propagate.

Human nature seeks meaning and reasons to live. What cause can members of a consumerist society believe in? According to Temelkuran, right-wing populism appears to have finally provided neo-liberalism with its cause. Leaders like Trump, Putin and Erdogan “took the void at the heart of the world wide web and gleefully filled it, turning people into militants of antipathy”.

The political analysis in the book is interlaced with vignettes of memoir, accounts of conversations with friends and dramatic moments in Temelkuran’s own political journey, making How to Lose a Country a highly engaging read, not without emotion.

In an authoritative and often witty style, the author takes readers as far back into the past as Aristotle and touches on the politics of countries as diverse as Venezuela, Syria and Russia. She sums up Political Islam as a fraud of limited imagination.

In the chapter entitled, “Let them laugh at the horror”, she warns concerned citizens in the West of the futility of taking refuge in mockery. 

Addressing an audience in New York four months after Trump took office, Temelkuran noticed their need to laugh at almost every mention of the new president’s name. She recalled how much time was wasted in Turkey by people on her side of the political divide reacting to right-wing populism with humour and sarcasm, “and how it took our political culture down a cul-de-sac, bringing about a new kind of fatalism, one that always has a smiley on the end”.

So, what are people to do who feel they are losing their country? Collective political action is the answer, she advises. In effect, this book is a call to arms. The chaos, hostility and dishonesty of the political field has driven many to observe the battle from the sidelines. “They observe the messy fight, not realising that they themselves are also meant to be gladiators.”

1/3/2020

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