I still remember the day I came to Turkey. While making a connection at London’s Heathrow Airport, I happened to glance at a newspaper headline announcing that a bomb in Izmir had killed several people. At the time I had no idea where Izmir was, nor why someone would choose to bomb it, but rather than taking it as an ominous message, I chose to downplay the significance of the event. I felt bad for the victims, but only in the abstract way that we all commiserate with things that do not directly affect us. Besides, I did not want to infect the optimism I felt at taking an academic job in Istanbul, where I had been asked to help found a literature department. I would engage in exactly this sort of hedging and deferral over the next ten years: overlooking bombs, tear gas, the senseless killing of youths during the Gezi Park uprising, the ousting of judges, and the government takeover of virtually every media outlet. But things finally reached a limit with the July 2016 coup d’état attempt by a faction within the Turkish military and the growing restrictions on academics and disturbing social demonstrations that followed in its wake.
I arrived during a relatively stable period in Turkey’s history, but the country has had more than its share of political, social, and economic upheavals throughout the 20th century, including three previous major coups. Being an expatriate in Turkey means sublimating doubts and anxieties over the rise of religious fundamentalism or the shrinking value of the Turkish Lira. I discovered that it is disturbingly easy to accept small changes like restrictions on alcohol sales or increasing government intervention and to think of larger looming problems, like the devastating earthquake that is slated to strike Istanbul or ISIS restoring the Caliphate, as vague possibilities that will never arrive. There is also a culture of postponement and acceptance in Turkey, buttressed by a native Turkish belief that “things will happen if God wills it” that makes it easier to dismiss the future in favor of the present. So I acknowledged disturbing possibilities, stored them somewhere in the back of my mind, and moved on. More… “After the Coup”
I’ve always been a storyteller. In middle school, I came in every Monday with a story to tell my friends as we sat on the windowsill in our homeroom. At the time, my mother was in prison. I was sharing a small room with my younger brother and living with a family that had three daughters, girls who had been my friends for years. I remember once my half-sister came to visit from Florida. She was an only child who lived with my father and her mother. She marveled at the fact that all us kids lived in that small house. If it appeared fun to her; that’s because, most of the time, it was. This is the thing about being one of the “unfortunates”: If you survive, it’s because you learn how to spin gold from the thread life has given you to hang yourself with. That’s what storytelling is.
In that house, we all wrote stories. We were the children of Caribbean parents who had pushed our noses into books so young that when they stopped pushing, we just stayed there. Writing was naturally the next step. Bringing these stories in to share with my friends at school followed. More… “For Post-Graduate Starving Artists”
Stanford University is embroiled in a debate over Western Civ courses — again. In the 1980’s, Stanford was at the epicenter of the collision between older great books curricula and new-fangled identity politics, a clash which featured the Reverend Jesse Jackson joining protesters in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” (referring to a course, not a civilization). After a generation in which the life of the mind on campus has been divided between leftist identity politics and technocratic social science in economics departments and business schools, old-fashioned liberal humanism is being championed again by the Stanford Review. The student magazine has launched a petition to restore mandatory courses in “Western Civilization” for all Stanford undergrads. More… “From Plato to Palo Alto”