2016 having turned out to be the year of the unpredictable, there’s been a brief spasm of soulsearching in the news media. Maybe one question we might like to address is the often unconscious bias in the words we use.
Are journalists really an out-of-touch metropolitan elite?
Well, to some extent, yes. Even if most journalists are not the well-paid celebrities that Brexiteers or Trump voters love to hate, we are educated, middle-class people who share the outlook of a certain social grouping and we can mistake that outlook for “objectivity”.
We’ve all heard those reports where the journalist, often in response to a question that invites them to be the spokesperson for a whole population, tells us “People think …”
Who are those people? Usually they’re the people we work with, the people we had dinner with last night, perhaps the politicians and pundits we’ve been interviewing, a very specific milieu whose opinions and prejudices are generally similar to those of the reporter.
For the reporter all reasonable people think this way – even if the equivalent milieu thought very differently on the same questions 50 or 100 years ago – and this outlook tends to be mistaken for the natural order of things.
This internalised bias is reflected in our coverage of events, our choice of subject matter and the terminology used in media that pride themselves on their objectivity.
Here are some terms I feel are widely abused:
Moderate/extremist: Do you consider any of your own opinions extreme? No, and nobody else thinks theirs are, either. Dubbing someone “extreme”, and even more so an “extremist”, puts them beyond the pale, situating them in relation to a consensus that you have not bothered to define and in general reflects your own prejudices. Was the Iraq War moderate in its aims, conduct or achievement? Did it enjoy majority support, either in the countries who waged it or in the Middle East? But how often have you seen Tony Blair or George Bush described as extreme? The consensus in the average newsroom has been confounded on several occasions in 2016. I’m not going to argue that Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or George Osborne are leading us to a brighter dawn. But are they extreme? Or are just the first three extreme and BJ and George moderates fallen into bad company? A more specific description of a political, religious or philosophical stance is more accurate and less value-loaded. Of course, we need a short-hand description of movements to the left or the right of the mainstream – far left, hard left, far right and hard right don’t carry so much implicit judgement.
Centre-right: Here, as I remember it, is how this term slipped into the political lexicon. Once upon a time the British Conservatives, Republicans, Gaullists etc were just plain right-wing and nobody thought any more about it. In the 1980s, led by Thatcher and Reagan, the mainstream right moved right. The mainstream left moved right as well, leading commentators to describe the Clintons, Blairs etc more or less accurately as centre-left. Then people without much political culture started saying “If there’s a centre-left there must be a centre-right” and relabelling the mainstream right parties “centre-right”. “Centre” had become one of those approval words, like “moderate”. But those parties hadn’t moved to the centre at all. There’s nothing particularly centre about today’s Republicans or Tories. François Fillon, the mainstream right’s candidate in next year’s presidential election in France, wants to scrap 500,000 public-sector jobs and thinks French colonialism was a sort of prototype for the Alliance française. What’s centrist about that?
International community: What is this entity? Who’s in and who’s out? Do you qualify by GDP, colonial history, skill in English? Is it established by UN votes? Or is it a way to make the opinions and interests of the world’s richest and most powerful countries sound like just plan common sense?
Terrorist: OK, this is an old chestnut. Terrorism is a bit like populism, we know it exists but we can’t really define it. Some people use it to describe non-state political violence but the origin of the term lies in its use by the French state after the revolution and virtually every politician has at some time or another labelled some government or other “terrorist”. We tend not to us the word to describe anyone whose actions we condone. Not many people nowadays use it for World War II resistance movements, although the German army certainly did. And we all know about “freedom fighters”, although we may not agree as to whether they operated in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba or, in any case, in what historical period they did so. I see that the BBC styleguide advises “its use can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding”, preferring “words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as bomber,attacker,gunman,kidnapper,insurgentandmilitant”, advice that is more honoured in the breach than in the observance, as far as I can see.
Militant: Which brings me to “militant”. I blame the south Asians for this. In the 70s and 80s, as I remember it, we had “trade union militants”, who may not have had a very good press but were rarely accused of shooting managers or bombing factories. Then there were quite a few armed groups active in south Asia and the media there tended to refer to them as “militants”. That seeped into BBC and other British coverage, later spreading to other English-language media. It’s true, so far as I can make out, that the roots of “militant” are the same as those of “military” but the former term has meant “combative” in a non-military sense for some time. The church militant is not exclusively that involved in the crusades, the militancy of the British miners was not armed resistance. And what is an “anti-abortion militant”? A “pro-life” activist or a marksman who shoots doctors at family planning clinics? In France we have the added complication that the French word militant just means activist, leading to all sorts of confusion in translation (I’m looking at you, AFP!). Ambiguous and best avoided, in my opinion.
In the US, the Republican right have taken to sneering at the “white working class”. But they’re not alone. Middle-class liberals same and the media feel free to caricature “white trash” or “chavs”. Class hatred lives on … when it’s top-down.
It’s so difficult to hate in peace these days. Overt racism is generally frowned upon – even by racists (“I’m not racist but …”). Islamophobia is having a moment, it’s true. And then there’s class hatred, as long as it’s de haut en bas, especially if you target the “white working class”, the subject of sneers from the American right recently but also portrayed by media and liberals as the repository of all bigotry, backwardness and bad taste.
Having created a monster, the Republican establishment is desperately trying to shift the blame for flipping the switch that brought Donald Trump to political life. Two writers in the New Republic have found the perfect suspect – “the white working class”.
“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles”, writes Kevin Williamson, going on to decry “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog”.
Cheering him on, David French claims Williamson has debunked “the idea that the white working-class (the heart of Trump’s support) is a victim class”. His church tried to help these people, he reports, but found its efforts wasted because they prefer welfare to work, drop out of education on a whim, shag the neighbour at the first sign of marital discord and neck prescription drugs with the same gusto that respectable people sip Chardonnay.
Reassuringly, French “hate[s] the mockery that poor and working-class people of all races endure” and doesn’t think that the drug-addicted fornicators are solely responsible for their fate. The government, the “cultural elite”, “progressive culture”, “progressive policies”, the “progressive welfare state” and the “elitist sexual revolutionaries” are not blameless, he adds … to no-one’s surprise.
For the New Republic, while both the causes and the guilt seem to be collective, the solutions must be individual – don’t claim disability, be faithful, stop snorting OxyContin move to get a job – and the way to achieve this is to give “white working class” – collectively – a good telling-off.
It isn’t just the right that lumps white working-class people into a homogeneous, contemptible mass.
“[S]ince Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash’,” writes US journalist Connie Schultz. “These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.”
Jack Metzgar in In These Times points out that the statistics don’t bear out the assertion that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from non-college-educated whites, the definition of working-class adopted by a Brookings article that says it does, while Charles Davis of TeleSur claims that among white voters who make less than US$25,000 a year, it is Bernie Sanders who is in the lead by a margin of 15 per cent.
But Trump isn’t really the point.
“Every group has its ‘other’,” Schultz observes. “For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”
When Hillary Clinton was fighting Barak Obama for the Democratic nomination, she was accused of playing to racist sentiment to appeal to the white working class. In France the white working class is often blamed for the rise of the Front National’s support, as it is for Ukip’s successes in the UK, where “chav” is now a term of abuse and the poor are the given the reality-TV treatment. These are standard liberal media analyses, repeated again and again in various forms, but generally identifying a hazily defined racial-cum-socio-economic category with whatever prejudice is to be decried at any given moment.
My own experience is that there are selfish shits and bigots in all social classes, although upbringing and level of education may influence the degree of subtlety with which these characteristics are manifested. Generosity and open-mindedness can be found everywhere, too, although I’ve found solidarity, in the sense of standing together in the face of common oppression, is somewhat lacking in the middle and upper classes.
But, however you define it, the working class is not ethnically homogeneous.
So what is that adjective doing in front of that noun?
We don’t talk about the black female gender, so why would a socio-economic category have an additional racial characterisation?
I understand one can reasonably talk about a white bourgeoisie in some Latin American countries, we could certainly talk about a white slave-owning class in the southern United States and the Caribbean in the past but, despite racist employment practices, membership of the working class is not such a privilege that it is restricted to any one race.
When factories close workers of all ethnic groups are thrown out of work. When incomes are squeezed, the banks foreclose with a lack of discrimination that would be praiseworthy in another context.
Some working-class people may react to the loss of relative security with racism or other prejudices – as may middle-class business owners or professionals who feel the pinch – but, when they do so, they are identifying as white, not working-class. When you express contempt for someone who is less privileged than yourself, whether in education, income or status, you’re defining them by class. And that’s a form of bigotry, too.
Panic in the cafés! Outrage in the offices! Furore on Facebook! France’s education minister has banned the use of the circumflex (^), decreed that oignon must be spelt ognon and sent out the language police to enforce 2,400 changes to the French language. Except she hasn’t. And the reaction to this non-revolution speaks volumes about our collective conservatism and social media’s power to reinforce it.
A shocked nation heard of the orthographic auto-da-fé on Wednesday, thanks to an article on the website of TF1 TV.
By Thursday Facebook, Twitter and all other social media accessible to agonised Francophones were abuzz with protests. A hashtag #Jesuiscirconflexe was launched – a hyperbolic comparison to mass murder that would have set the Twittersphere tutt-tutting in other circumstances.
Right-wingers, who are far from the reform’s only opponents, were quick to blame Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a frequent target for vilification who can look forward to even more now Christiane Taubira has left the government.
She “thinks she has the right to turn the rules of French spelling on their heads”, according to a statement rushed out by the hard-right UNI students’ union.
“It is no surprise that what was a speculative discussion a quarter of a century ago among 40 rather civilised, snobbish and reliably silly old men has been made into a sharp edict under the most ideological education minister France has known since the early 80s,” declared Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in the Daily Telegraph.
Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good scare
Now who are we to believe here? UNI and Anne-Elisabeth Moutet or the nearest thing France has to the Daily Telegraph, Le Figaro?
Because Le Figaro explains that Vallaud-Belkacem had nothing to do with it. The changes were discussed at the end of the 80s – by a committee of representatives of French-speaking nations and communities – agreed by the Académie française – whom I take to be Moutet’s “civilised, snobbish and reliably silly old men” – 29 years ago and declared officially acceptable seven years ago. But it has taken France’s schoolbook publishers all that time to catch up. Although some of them incorporated the changes in earlier editions, the beginning of the next academic year will be the first time they all recognise them. Without any edict being signed.
Le Figaro’s article, and all other informed pieces on the subject, also explain that the changes are limited, affecting only 4% of French vocabulary, and optional. The circumflex may be dropped on “I” and “u”, except in certain cases, for example when it makes a difference to the meaning. But they don’t have to be. The effect will be that pupils who spell coût (cost), oignon (onion) and extra-terrestre (extraterrestrial) as they sound – cout, ognon, extraterrestre – will no longer lose marks.
To see more examples of the changes, click here for my article on RFI’s English website.
The conservative paper also reports that the reform “isn’t working so badly for our Belgian and Swiss neighbours” and links to a report of its adoption Quebec … in 2010.
So the first lesson of all this that it’s always a good idea to read a little further than the headline.
Politics and the French language
Then we get to the politics.
Florian Philippot, who wants to render the far-right Front National fit for human consumption, texted a rhyming couplet that described the reform as “vile and stupid”, while the only slightly less right-wing Eric Ciotti, of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans, declared it a “race to the bottom”.
Moutet believes Vallaud-Belkacem has a nefarious plan to stamp out elitism in education and help the disadvantaged. In the 15 months since she was appointed, this has apparently reduced the majority of French students to a state of “near illiteracy” (not my experience with the students I teach at Paris 13 university).
“You don’t need to be George Orwell to see that there is something sinister in any regime that sacrifices the memory and structure of the language to convenience and political fiat,” Moutet writes, a bad choice since Orwell was an advocate of plain English and an enemy of archaisms. http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/definitions/orwell.cfm
But I see nothing particularly sinister in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s switch to the Latin alphabet from the non-indigenous Arabic alphabet, whatever criticism one might have of the Young Turks’ identification of Europeanisation with progress. And it’s worked, although it necessitated the use of diacritics for the purposes of pronunciation that cause a certain confusion to foreigners. By the way, the sinister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be trying to bring Ottoman Turkish back, comparing its abolition to cutting Turkey’s jugular.
Nor did the Vietnamese adoption of the Latin alphabet, switching from the non-indigenous Chinese, wipe their history or culture from their memories or impair their ability to fight off French colonialism and the US war machine.
So the argument that France’s historical memory will be erased along with the accents does not really hold water. Yes, the circumflex tells us that there used to be an “s” in the word in old French and in the Latin that it came from. But, interesting as it is, linguistic history is not essential to communication, which is the function of language. If it was, why not have diacritics to indicate the words that came from Greek or Arabic? That would interest me but I wouldn’t want a kid to fail an exam for not dropping a diacritical hint to that effect.
The human brain is a conservative organ
The argument that the changes are ugly seems misconceived to me, too.
Languages certainly have properties particular to themselves, as Moutet points out. But it is the use to which those properties are put that are beautiful.
Shakespeare was not a great playwright and poet because he worked in English but because of the skill with which he used the language and the ideas and feelings he expressed.
We can be sure that General Christian Piquemal, recently arrested for taking part in a banned Pegida demonstration manages to make French sufficiently ugly when he wishes to humiliate a subordinate or insult a migrant, although one imagines he will adopt a mellifluous tone in court.
When confronted with change, we tend to confuse aesthetics and habit.
We have had to learn these spellings. We were happy to please teacher when we got them right, devastated by the red ink on our homework when we got them wrong. Me too. I’m fond of the circumflex, proud to know its history and afraid of being thought ignorant if I use it wrongly. But that doesn’t make the damn thing beautiful.
In general, we think that what we’ve been taught is the Right Way of Doing Things and that what we’re used to is just and beautiful. We find change disconcerting and dismiss the new as ugly. Just look at the history of art.
Our brains learn from experience, they conserve information and, when circumstances change, they take their time adapting. This makes us conservative creatures. Some of what we wish to conserve is worth hanging on to. Some needs to be adapted or dumped because it has become redundant.
The worldwide web has been a tool for innovation but, being a reflection of ourselves in all our glory and infamy, it has also been a means of propagating conservative prejudice. It has vastly increased our capacity to get our facts right. But it’s also vastly increased our ability to spread misconceptions and misinformation. With its facility of publishing and the hysterical tone it encourages, a moral panic can travel three times round the world before the truth has got its facts checked.
Mes chers #Jesuiscirconflexes, the experts are laughing at you.
Linguists and lexicographers know that languages evolve, that even two centuries ago the rules were much more fluid, that every language was a dialect, slang, dog Latin or creole when it was young.
“It’s vanity,” lexicographer Marie-Hélène Drivaud comments toL’Obs on the circumflex hooha. “People like the fact that they had to work hard to learn it, so future generations have to learn it too.”
Spelling was “much more flexible and dynamic” before the 19th century, she points out.
Will the language reform work?
Of course, if she does want to really enforce the reform, Vallaud-Belkacem could emulate the ancient Chinese emperor who is supposed to have burnt all the books, apart from two copies of each one that he kept, and buried 460 scholars alive in an attempt to impose his cultural reforms. But you know how it is these days. The usual politically correct bleeding hearts would kick up and we’d never hear the end of it.
Judging by the reactions of citoyens of all political persuasions and personal outlooks to the circumflex scare, I doubt if many people’s spelling habits will change – in the short term, at least – if no such drastic action is taken.
But the language will evolve, with or without permission from the Académie, the pedants or you or me, and what serves no purpose will eventually die out.
Nor do I believe the chanves will encourage more foreigners to learn French, which was apparently the chief reason for initiating it. English is the global language principally for geopolitical reasons, not because of its properties, many of which are not at all user-friendly. (Anthony Burgess tells a hilarious joke in Language Made Plain about a Frenchman trying to learn English who committed suicide after reading the headline “Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap pronounced a success”. Think about it.)
The reform can be criticised for being a pretty complicated form of simplification, circumflexually speaking at least. Indeed, one could complain that it doesn’t follow its own logic to a conclusion, both with the circumflex and with some words that it neglects to change. “Nénuphar” (water-lily) can be spelt “nénufar” – why not? – but “nymphéa” must stay the same. Why? Because “nénufar” – let’s be modern here – comes from Arabic, while “nymphéa” comes from Greek. Since Greek has only one letter for the sound (Φφ) the logic escapes me.
What about English? Bring back thorn!
Finally, an appeal for a modest reform of my own mother-tongue. I believe with all my heart that we should revive the letter thorn (þ). It was the Anglo-Saxon letter for “th” but was killed off (I suspect the Normans). It’s why you see signs saying “Ye Olde Tea-Shoppe” – that “Ye” is really “þe”. There’s obviously no reason why “th” should be used for this sound and using it this way means we can’t aspirate after a “t”. OK, we don’t do that in English but some Asian languages do, so it might come in handy.
We also can’t aspirate after a “p”, so, while we’re at it, we might want to emulate the French reformers and replace “ph” with “f”. It’s logical. And it could avoid some confusion when going to Phuket.
It’s difficult to write frankly about Charlie Hebdo – it was difficult to do so in the aftermath of the massacre and it’s only a bit easier now. In France there was shock, of course, a kind of solidarity and, let’s be honest, a lot of self-righteousness. But the French don’t have the monopoly on self-righteousness, as the debate on Charlie abroad has shown. I think the experience has much to say about France – and the world – today.
Do I have to say I was horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket that followed? Maybe I do. It’s easy these days to find oneself accused of holding opinions one doesn’t hold and entertaining sympathies one has never entertained, of advocating when trying to analyse (for the record this piece doesn’t aspire to neutrality).
Last January Charlie Hebdo suddenly found millions of passionate defenders – many of whom had clearly never read it or, so far as the more famous among them were concerned, only done so in search of grounds for legal action. Of course, they had the right to be angry at the violence and to defend their perception of freedom of expression. But it was exasperating to be lectured on the nature of a paper one had once read regularly in formulations culled from press coverage rather than formulated from personal experience.
Then the debate took a different turn, in the English-speaking world at least, and I got exasperated with critics who had also clearly never read Charlie. No, anglophone friends, the paper is not entirely devoted to Islamophobic and racist bile. While there’s no defence for some of its cartoons – Riss’s latest on Aylan above all – others were satirising the attitudes many of you believed they were propagating. Like lots of things in life, it can be good and it can be crap.
Here’s my confession of a Charlie reader who gave up.
When I came to France 22 years ago I soon discovered Charlie Hebdo. And I loved it.
The schoolboy humour naturally struck a chord, me being a Brit. The politics was anarcho-leftist-Jacobin, which mostly suited me. And it is true that its contributors mocked everyone, although not equally, as some of the never-read-its claim. Not very much humour on the Holocaust, happily. And lots of scurrilous attacks on the Front National and its then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, also happily.
But, after a while, it seemed to change.
There were more and more sneers at Islam. I didn’t analyse how many cartoons and articles were devoted to each religion or set of political beliefs – I just stopped reading it – but Islam seemed to me to be becoming an obsession and I found it a distasteful one.
After the Charlie attacks a TV journalist became a French YouTube hit by showing that Charlie Hebdo’s covers over a given period of time featured few cartoons attacking Islam. This quite literally superficial analysis has no pertinence whatever.
Firstly, there was plenty on Islam inside.
Secondly, as former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran pointed out in 2013, attacking a minority religion, associated with an immigrant-origin population that is disproportionately underprivileged, is not the same as attacking the Catholic church, “which had – and still has – newspapers, MPs, lobbies, salons and enormous property holdings”.
Catholics, one might add, never have their very right to live in Europe challenged, nor is their religion declared foreign to European culture, despite its provenance.
I can’t put a date on when I gave up reading Charlie. Cyran says it took a radical turn for the worse after 9/11. And he tends to blame Philippe Val, an ardent supporter of Israel who was later appointed director of Radio by Nicolas Sarkozy (not so iconoclastic as all that, eh?), and Caroline Fourrest, a hypersecularist who is rarely absent from TV, radio and the written press these days, thanks to her support for gay marriage, her opposition to hijab and her penchant for sniffing out Salafist conspiracies.
But this hypersecularism is not unique to Charlie. It is very widespread in France – in its arrogant rejection of religion and the religious it was a sort of New Atheismavant la lettre.
It turns out that secularism is one of those container words that you can fill up with any number of meanings, like Liberté, égalité, fraternité or democracy, for that matter.
And, when a term becomes a sort of dogma, no longer examined critically, it lays itself open for exploitation by all sorts of cynical demagogues and authoritarians manqués. We know that from the history of religion, don’t we?
You can see secularism as a truce between non-believers and believers – you keep religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion – or you can see it as a more aggressive measure to keep religion completely out of the public eye. That view tends to segue into an apparent desire to wipe religion off the face of the earth. In which case it’s not really secularism, is it? It’s state-sponsored atheism, which hasn’t worked very well.
France’s 1905 law on religion is in fact the first of these alternatives – a more aggressive anti-clerical faction lost the argument – but many French people interpret it as the second, with a tinge of the third, increasingly so these days.
When I first went to Turkey, to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections, some supporters of the secular parties used the French term laïcité to distinguish what Mustapha Kemal Atatürk had put into practice in Turkey from mere secularism.
Like the French version, Turkey’s secularism was born from a violent rupture with the past.
It was an attempt to break the hold of religion on the minds of the masses and end habits regarded as backward according to the Young Turks’ identification of modernity with Europe.
You can understand this zeal in the context of the French revolution. The revolutionaries needed to break the power of a Catholic church that was a powerful part of the ancien regime and, if we bear in mind today’s revelations of clerical child abuse in countries where the church went unchallenged, there must have been an awful lot of residual bitterness over priestly abuses of power, which may explain the violence of some anti-clerical exactions.
Post-Ottoman Turkey, too, had to replace a regime of which religion was an integral part and create a state capable of standing up to the Islamic clergy, although, if we look at Turkey’s current political and social condition, we would have to conclude that it has been a mitigated success. The largest secular party, the CHP, seems to have recognisew this and is revising its hardline position.
But where is the relevance for France today?
When right-wing Catholics and assorted bigots turned out en masse to oppose the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage law – singularly failing to mobilise Muslims, by the way, despite some efforts to do so – there were few appeals to secularism. Indeed, right-wing politicians who have seen fit to call for pork-only menus to be served in school canteens were happy to play fast and loose with the god-botherers.
Because, excuse me for stating the obvious, it’s all about Islam. Nobody thought to ban “ostentatious signs of religion in schools, until a couple of Muslim girls turned up in hijab. (In that debate, which is now being recycled as a debate on cover in universities and workplaces, there is a strange confusion between those in authority and those over whom authority is exercised. Of course teachers should not proselytise, they represent the state, but why shouldn’t their pupils manifest religious convictions? Is it even realistic to expect them not to? In this respect the French are as prudish about religion as the British are about politics.)
That explains why many right-wing ideologues can one minute invoke Europe’s Christian or Judeo-Christian roots and the next pose as ferocious defenders of secularism, just as many of the political successors of the late 19th-century and early 20th-centur anti-Semites are now ardent defenders of Israel.
This form of secularism has become an assertion of the superiority of the Occident over the world it once colonised, tinged with class hatred, given that many of its exponents will happily mix with well-off, “integrated” persons of foreign origin, but like to whip up fear of a lawless mass in the banlieue.
Of course, Muslims are equal in France. Secularism applies to everybody just as “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, to quote Anatole France.
As Emmanuel Todd says in Qui est Charlie? – the book that earned him the singular privilege of a reply from the prime minister in the august pages of Le Monde – they face a pressure to conform from people of Catholic culture, who tell them “I have the right to blaspheme against my former religion, so you have to the duty to blaspheme against yours.”
The feeling of cultural superiority takes a distinctive form in France and has infected the left in a way it has not, in my experience, infected the British left.
To go back the two decades to my arrival in France I was struck by how in our globalised world – less globalised then, but still – national attributes continued to exist.
In my new home appreciating good food and drink was not considered elitist snobbery, it was not generally considered necessary to make room for other people when walking in the street, the arts were considered important enough to merit a slot on TV news bulletins, the customer was very definitely not always right, intellectuals felt under no obligation to pretend they were not intellectuals … and every French person was a bit of a patriot.
No matter how left-wing and in principle internationalist they were, they treasured in their hearts a certain conviction that French culture was superior to all others.
Of course, we all assume to some degree or other that what we’re used to is the natural order of things and I know that my new friends often found me quaintly British.
But I think France is the only country where former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement could found his own little party to propagate a bizarre leftish form of nationalism, where the hard-left candidate in the last presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could this year wax indignant about the Corsican regional council taking an oath “in a language I don’t understand” and where Prime Minister Manuel Valls … well I was talking about the left, so let’s leave Manuel Valls out of it.
It’s partly the fault of the French Communist Party, which at the time when it was France’s biggest party in terms of membership took the popular front accommodation with nationalism very seriously, played a heroic role in the resistance to German occupation, which inevitably led to a certain nationalist, even xenophobic, contagion, and after the war just couldn’t get out of the opportunist habit.
And, of course, there’s the revolution, without which the modern world would not exist.
The legacy of the revolution legitimises popular revolt. The slogans of the revolution represent a promise that is sufficiently vague to serve as justification for the established order and rallying cry for those who wish to overthrow it. The revolution has served as example, case study and inspiration for every generation of revolutionaries since.
And its centralist, nation-building aspects sometimes morph into the secular ultimatums, sneering and prejudice that find expression in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which, despite its affection for the slogan “No god, no masters”, seems to have found it easier to come to an accommodation with the latter than with the former.
Because, despite the naughty words, the routine impertinence, the tits, bums and dicks, Charlie Hebdo is a bit of a court jester these days.
Viewed from the banlieue, as academic and journalist Andrew Hussey points out, Charlie is part of the establishment.
“What is seen in the centre of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society,” he wrote in the New York Timesafter the attacks.
Indeed, one of the main reasons that Islam is resurgent is that the left has lost the leadership of the anti-imperialist and antiracist struggles. Secular nationalist and left-wing anti-colonial movements degenerated into corrupt dictatorships or neo-liberal democratic plutocracies. Mass socialist parties voided themselves of their class content.
The spectre haunting the world today is the spectre of fundamentalist jihad, violent, divisive, frightening, supported by a tiny minority of Muslims but filling a demand created by the arrogance of the West and the inadequacy of the left.
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has annoyed all the right people (pun intended). It’s back to the 1980s so far as abuse and distortion are concerned. So, how loony is the left? And can Corbyn’s supporters defend him against dirty tricks and hate campaigns?
Better the 1980s than the 1890s: George Osborne – and the Little-Sir-Echos in the media and the Labour Party – are worried – or happy, the Tories can’t decide on the line on this one – that Jeremy Corbyn will drag Labour back to the 1980s. This is a bit rich, coming from someone who is dragging Britain back to the levels of inequality of the 19th century, George. And, as I remember it, the worst thing about the 1980s was that your lot were in charge.
Corbyn’s candidature dragged the media back to the 1980s. The people who don’t want Labour to go back to the 1980s are busy dusting off the terms of abuse that graced the headlines of that very decade, “loony left” for example. But what was so loony about the left? As I remember it, the tabloids’ main targets were feminism, gay rights, anti-racism and talking to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, most of which look pretty mainstream now. Another fine journalistic practise that is getting a lot of mileage at the moment – although, to be fair, it never exactly went out of fashion – is distorting what your subject says and stands for.
The people who said Corbyn could not be elected Labour leader now say he can’t win a general election. Have you no shame? You got it wrong. Time for a rethink, not another piece of pro-big business propaganda disguised as analysis. Hey, look! A Sky (!) poll shows he was the most popular of the candidates among the general public and “his left wing policies are also not necessarily as unpopular as many might believe” (they left out the “want to” there, for some reason).
Corbyn’s programme is not all that radical. Corbyn may be the most left-wing Labour leader ever, as Tariq Ali argues, but that’s mainly because of his foreign policy. On domestic policy it’s not exactly storming heaven. I was distracted from my work the other day by a lady from the Bloombergs agency explaining on one of those irritating BBC panel shows that advocating renationalisation of the railways would consign Labour to some circle or other of economists’ hell. But we did it before, Madam, and it wasn’t accompanied by red terror nor did it lead to economic collapse. How will it be paid for, she asked. Well, perhaps by savings on scrapping Trident – Oh sorry, it’s unrealistic not to spend billions on that – or by making Bloomberg subscribers and other top earners pay their fair whack in tax. People’s quantitative easing seems consistent with what Thomas Piketty argues and everyone thinks he’s wonderful, except for the Financial Times on alternate days. Raising the minimum wage? The president of the United States wants that to happen in his country – but then he’s a Muslim socialist born in Kenya, so what does he know?
Corbyn owes much of his victory to social media but can social media defend him? Hoist by their own primaries petard, Labour’s right wing are already plotting to reverse the party’s left turn by any means necessary. A key factor in mobilising for Corbyn was social media, whose echo-chamber effect allows us to consort with the like-minded, reinforcing our views/prejudices and giving us a feeling of power in the numbers, one of the functions of the revolutionary party, if I recall my Lenin. But the social media is also physically isolated, indulging his or her pleasure from home, the workplace or on public transport with headphones clamped to ears. Will the three-pounders or even many of the new party members be prepared to trudge along to monthly party branch meetings, be delegates to constituency parties, conferences etc so as to stop right-wing dirty tricks and ensure that the party’s policies align with those of its leader? Of course, I’m biased. I was expelled from Labour in the 80s. It was quite a relief, to be honest.
Corbynmania was in part a revolt against how democracy works but is there a viable alternative? Some 251,000 people, many of them never involved in politics before, rejected their betters’ advice and voted for Corbyn. Why? Many were young people feeling the effects of austerity and disillusioned with post-2008 capitalism. Many responded to a glimmer of integrity in the sewer of modern politics. And many were reacting against the cynical consumerist strategies that were the Blairites’ only principles but are to some extent inherent to parliamentary democracy, which is not government by the people, for the people but the people choosing who will govern them as a globalised capitalism decides the most important aspects of their lives. Syriza had a mandate to change this but failed. Admittedly, there are only 11 million Greeks but do 64 million Brits – or that proportion who want a change – have the power or the structures to impose it?
Everyone’s surprised by the support garnered by Jeremy Corbin and Bernie Sanders, not least their most ardent supporters. The British Labour Party may soon have a leader who can be described as left-wing without inverted commas. Americans may be invited to vote for someone who says he’s a socialist and could even win. Can this possible be true? And, as importantly, what does it mean?
The unpredictable is the only safe prediction in today’s political world, as parties that were solid melt into air and others that scarcely registered on the pollsters’ radar no so long ago win control of towns, cities, a country even.
Clearly, the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and the mainstream parties’ responses – generosity to the banks and billionaires, austerity for those without their clout – have discredited capitalism, or at least its most brutal manifestations, in the eyes of many.
As Bernard Porter points out, to the generation that has grown up since the Cold War and is experiencing the Thatcher/Reagan legacy, Corbyn is not a dinosaur but a revelation.
Austerity has discredited its enforcers, including the careerist leaders of Europe’s formerly social-democratic parties, leading to an unexpected revival of the left in Greece, Scotland and Spain.
Of course, it’s also given a boost to the Trumps, Le Pens and Farages but that, too, is a symptom of the collapse in the authority of established parties and ideologies.
But I think there is another, connected reason for the explosion of support for these two men and other political outsiders.
Isn’t it also a symptom of the rejection of the market approach to politics? Of spin doctors telling parties not to present policies they believe in to voters but pitch offers to that part of the electorate that is not inclined to vote for them – the “Them’s me principles but, if you don’t like ‘em, I’ll change ‘em” approach to democracy.
The efforts of Corbyn’s opponents to explain how unelectable he is, as he packs in huge crowds, races ahead of them in the leadership election stakes and then proves to be the most popular candidate among many non-Labour voters, have been an invaluable contribution to the great British comic tradition, as have their efforts to get rid of thousands of the wrong kind of voter. If we don’t like the voters, we can change them, as well.
Corbyn’s and Sanders’s support is evidence of a widespread desire for personal integrity in politics, a quality that is notable by its absence in most parliaments these days.
But, judging by reports of party meetings and public rallies, there’s also a demand for political honesty.
The strategic masterminds told party activists and bedrock supporters that they must keep their political libidos under control for fear of frightening the floating voter. In Britain that got them the Iraq War, economic crisis and two electoral defeats, not to mention the personal enrichment of prime ministers and their Svengalis.
So, many people want to vote for what they’d really like to see happen this time round. And it looks as if that could be a more realistic strategy in attracting many voters – including some of those tempted by Ukip or even Trump – than trying to sell a party as if it were something that gets rid of unpleasant stains.
Hannah Arendt apparently argued that electoral politics transforms the political relationship into that of seller to buyer, a point taken up by the PKK and the PYD in their turn to alternative forms of participation and organisation. Voters become consumers, passive individuals in an increasingly atomised society, delegating decision-making to a political caste that can claim their consent because they have participated in the electoral process.
We are thus coopted into our own political and economic exploitation, all the more so today when the politicians then declare themselves powerless in the face of the market on the most important questions that affect our lives. Russell Brand may not be as superficial as Jeremy Paxman would have us believe.
This goes some way to explain the enthusiasm for direct election of presidents, mayors etc that has spread outwards from the US, the Afghans having it imposed on them as an indispensable element of democracy by a coalition of countries many of whom didn’t practise it themselves (the UK’s Jack Straw congratulated them on at last electing their head of state – was he being subtly subversive or just not thinking what he was saying?).
The more representatives are elected, and the more personalised those elections are, the more consumer choice has been exercised and the more passive the electors should be once their ballots have been cast.
Hence the primaries – invented in the US, of course, and now exported to Europe (the mainstream French parties now have primaries, too, but, so far, they’ve delivered the required results, so no hooha about who’s voted in them).
Hilariously, in Britain a procedure that was designed to dilute the power of party activists in a mass of passive voters has become mobilised thousands to express disgust with austerity, careerism and top-down politics.
With added irony, the rise of social media, which in a sense add to the atomisation of society – the individual sits isolated in front of the screen and is bombarded with what algorithms decide is good for him or her – have fuelled the process, creating networks that establish a new form of the collective.
If Corbyn or Sanders wins, what happens next?
In Britain the establishment in its various manifestations has already shown its intention to override the democratic process by any means necessary.
I suspect that is when the weakness of social media-driven enthusiasm will become apparent. Will the thousands who have voted have the stamina or power to resist a long-term campaign of sabotage and vilification by professionals whose careers are intimately linked to the status quo?
I don’t want to sound patronising here, Yanis Varoufakis certainly has more academic qualifications than me and could undoubtedly teach me a thing or two about economics, but it does seem that his time as a minister has been an education for him in politics, the nature and art of negotiation and the ruthlessness of the establishment.
“ … there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.”
But why did he imagine it would be any other way?
Forgive me for saying so, Professor, but you were naïve. These people already know the arguments and have decided that they are of no use to them.
Some – Schäuble, Tusk – appear to be ideologically committed to austerity, perhaps due to a sentimental attachment to the idea of the lower orders suffering or perhaps because of their political, personal or family histories.
Others have built careers in the service of an establishment that is becoming increasingly addicted to short-term financial returns, big dividends, not paying taxes and slashing waste, ie what’s left of the welfare state.
They don’t want to listen to the opposing case and explaining that case was not relevant to negotiation over Greece’s debt.
In the long run, austerity means that the EU, and eventually capitalism, will eat itself.
But – and for anyone who’s read previous relevant posts on my blog may find I sound a bit Johnny One Note here – the restraints on their short-termism have gone. These were essentially a powerful labour movement and, even more importantly in my view, a competing social system in the form of the Soviet bloc. They no longer exist, so the capitalist class no longer accepts that the state disciplines its need for higher and higher returns in the briefest delays possible.
Negotiation is not about persuading your opponents of the correctness of your case, it’s about convincing them that they have something to lose by not accepting your demands or at least reaching compromise.
That’s why I was amazed when the Syriza leaders declared that they would not leave the eurozone or accept loans from Russia.
Whether you intend to do it or not, why rule out a course of action that could frighten some of the people on the opposite side of the table (although not Schäuble in the first case, apparently)?
Equally puzzling was the Syriza leadership’s acceptance of France’s “help” in drawing up its final proposals (after Varoufakis’s resignation).
The French government and the civil servants it deployed to look over the Greeks’ shoulders may not want a Grexit but they have enthusiastically applied austerity policies and seem to have had a major role in drafting a swingeing package for Greece.
While the negotiations were going on, someone suggested to me that Schäuble was playing hard cop to allow Angela Merkel to look like the soft cop. Not a good comparison. Angela was quite hard enough. Wolfgang was more like the cop applies electrodes to your genitals.
The French Socialist leaders were the soft cops, with President François Hollande apparently on the phone to the Greeks and the Germans continuously in the run-up to the last deal and, in the end, they managed to thrust their package down the Greeks’ throats.
Oh well! At least the Syriza leaders showed that politicians don’t have to wear ties.
Ties are the sartorial descendants of a scrap of material that knights used to wear to stop their breastplates rubbing against their necks. Whether the big swinging dicks in the boardrooms and ministries like it or not, we don’t wear armour any more, so ties are pointless.
That’s a tiny victory, I suppose.
I’m off to Greece this week. So more on the blog later.
Whether you agree with the result or not, the massive No vote in Sunday’s Greek referendum was a courageous choice. Nobody knows what will happen now – not the Greeks, not the troika … not even Angela Merkel. The majority of Greeks chose to risk more economic hardship rather than willingly undergo further humiliation at the Eurobullies’ hands. A few observations:
The Greeks said no to do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do: Jean-Claude Juncker and Christine Lagarde told them they were naughty not to have paid their taxes. He was finance minister and then prime minister of a tax haven from 1989 to 2013. Being employed by the IMF, she doesn’t pay taxes anywhere (as was, of course, also the case for her predecessor, the delightful DSK). I don’t think that any of us could swear, hand on heart, that we would insist on our contract being rewritten if offered tax exemption but why exactly do international pontificators on fiscal rigour have this status?
European unity is good … but at what price? I have to admit to a sentimental attachment to the European Union and the euro. Being able to travel across most of a continent without showing my passport or changing my money is a pleasing taste of a world without national borders. But how many Greeks should be made unemployed, have their pensions slashed or otherwise reduced to penury to afford me that pleasure?
Europe would look pretty stupid without Greece: Juncker and friends said that the Greeks were voting on whether to stay in the euro and maybe the EU. Grexit would be a big blow to the euro project but they may be ready to accept it for the sake of an example to the other southern European slackers. But what will become of all those speeches about Europe’s heritage and values if the country that gave us the words “democracy”, “philosophy” – not to mention “poliics”, “comedy” and “drama” – is no longer part of our Europe? What has Luxembourg’s contribution to our common culture been, remind me?
Opinion polls are crap: Thank God I resisted the temptation to write a headline about Yes and No being neck and neck on RFI’s website on Saturday following the last poll, which showed the Yes winning with 41.5% against 40.2% for the No. This is not the first time the pollsters have been spectacularly wrong or that partisan media and interested parties have tried to influence the result by seizing on the prediction that serves their purpose. What happened? Were those canny Greeks also plotting their revenge on pollsters, journalists and EU chiefs by lying about their real intentions? Of course, even if the pollsters are genuinely trying to get it right, they can’t avoid the fact that being polled is passive and going to vote is active. They include in their calculations the responses of people who won’t be arsed to go and vote, whose opinion, quite rightly, isn’t taken into account in a real democratic process. But still we write articles based on one poll as if it was a factual account of the public’s mood and politicians allow their results to influence policy. I think we do have enough evidence to say that François Hollande is not very popular in France at the moment but can we really be sure that 51% of French people don’t think very highly of Alexis Tsipras on the basis of one poll?
This is the beginning of an era of austerity, not the end: Austerity doesn’t deliver what’s promised and depresses demand, thus further damaging the economy. But the IMF, the EU and the German leadership have turned down Yanis Varoufakis’s kind offer to save capitalism from itself. Electoral considerations come into this for Merkel, although, as George Papandreou showed when he resigned as Greek PM, an establishment politician is prepared to fall on his sword for the greater bourgeois good if bullied enough. Please read my previous post Austerity the new normal on why I believe that the changes in the structure of the working class and the collapse of the Soviet bloc have lifted the restraints on unbridled capitalist accumulation and are likely to lead to all the social reforms of the 20th century being “reformed” away.
In my first post on this blog I predicted that the US will one day provoke a war with China in an attempt to maintain its global hegemony. The formulation was deliberately provocative and, of the three reasons to be pessimistic about the future that I outlined, it has provoked the most scepticism, both on Facebook and to my own, physical face, although not, unfortunately, in comments on the blog (hint, hint).
For the last couple of years I’ve asked my students at Paris 13 University to debate this question. It’s always difficult to find someone to support the proposition and at the end the vote against is overwhelming.
They put forward plenty of good arguments against. But I think there are also strong arguments for and perhaps a tendency to think that it won’t happen simply because we really don’t want it to.
Here’s the strongest argument for a decisive confrontation between the US and China:
The World Bank predicts that China will be the world economy’s top dog by 2050 … and that by a very long way.
Chinese growth has averaged 10% for the last 30 years and, although it’s slowing down, it will continue to outstrip the older-established industrial economies unless there is a sudden and dramatic reversal of fortunes.
The US is losing its economic hegemony of the planet and, although the Chinese leadership appears to have no aspirations to global political or military hegemony at the moment, I don’t see how Washington can keep hold of the latter if it ceases to have the former.
We’re witnessing the decline of an empire and that is never a peaceful process.
The US has reacted to the decline in its economic status in time-honoured fashion – competing with China economically with the creation of a free-trade partnership around the Pacific, recruiting “allies” that it hopes will be dependent on its support in the region and encircling China with military bases, some equipped with troops and boats, others with drones.
Here’s the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership – countries in dark green are already members, those in light green have expressed an interest, those in blue, according to the designers, are potential future members (China – really?).
If all goes as planned, the US will have sewn up a trading partnership across what Washington now regards as the “centre of gravity” of world economic activity, an area that produces 60 per cent of the world’s GDP and represents half of world trade – “a posse to get China,” according to Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Hartcher.
But, of course, Washington knows that it can’t prevent its new friends dallying with China economically – Taiwan thinks it’s the real Republic of China but that hasn’t stopped its capitalists taking the plane to the People’s Republic (PRC) for self-enrichment purposes. No more can US companies afford to renounce doing business with Beijing.
In 2011 on a visit to Australia Barack Obama announced a “pivot to Asia”.
It hasn’t quite gone as planned, what with the hoped-for disengagement from the Middle East and Afghanistan proving more difficult than Washington’s finest minds imagined.
Nevertheless, there has been a frantic diplomatic offensive, which has involved bringing Myanmar/Burma out of the cold, sucking up to India’s Narendra Modi and cultivating every country that has a territorial bone to pick with China, which just happens to be every one of its neighbours to the east and south.
Here are the principal points of friction in the South China Sea:
The Spratley Islands,which are rich fishing grounds and, probably,have significant oil and natural gas reserves, are claimed in part or entirely bythe PRC, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan, all of whom, apart from Brunei, have military forces on one or more of the otherwise uninhabited rocks;
The Paracelislands, more good fishing and probable oil and gas, are controlled by the PRC but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan;
The Senkaku/Diaoyuislands, more rocks with fishing, oil and shipping lanes, controlled by Japan but claimed by the PRC and Taiwan; Things got nasty in 2012-13 when Japan bought three of the islands from a “private owner”, sparking demonstrations in China, and the PRC declared an east China Sea flight identification zone; A US-Japan security treaty obliges the US to intervene in case of threat to Japan’s sovereignty over the islands;
Japan – a lot of history here, as with the rest of east Asia, and a focus for Chinese nationalism, which sometimes threatens to escape Chinese Communist Party control; Right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is an aggressive nationalist who wants to renounce Japan’s post-war limits on its military role – he has increased defence spending, created a new national security council and beefed up alliances with neighbouring countries.
Taiwan, like the People’s Republic, claims the right to control the whole South China Sea; it a
lso claims to be the official government of all China, although that policy is the subject of much political controversy, while the PRC claims that Taiwan is part of its territory and 2,000 missiles pointed at the island. In 2011 the US agreed to a US$5 billion upgrade to Taiwan’s F-16 military airplanes.
No-one’s going to be short of a casus belli here.
Now it so happens that one-third of the world’s maritime trade and half its traffic in oil and gas takes place in the region and major petroleum and other mineral deposits are believed to lie beneath the seabed.
The US, through its navy and its allies hopes to have a stranglehold on virtually all of China’s oil supply through control of the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca, one reason, perhaps, for Beijing’s relatively good record of investment in renewable energy but also for its antsiness when it comes to islands near shipping lanes.
So, although the Chinese leadership may not aspire to world hegemony, it very definitely wants hegemony of east Asia, especially the South China Sea.
And the US definitely doesn’t want that, witness the map of US bases in the region, now featuring new, added US troops in Australia:
Of course, there are plenty of US troops to the west of China, too, notably in Afghanistan – albeit in reduced numbers – and Kyrgyzstan.
However, as historian Alfred McCoy points out, China seems to be in the process of outmanoeuvring the US by extending its influence westwards, with an ambitious network of transport and pipelines. Gas and Oil pipelines will soon link China to the Caspian Sea, via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, to the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and thus to the Gulf via Myanmar and Pakistan, and to Siberia.
According to McCoy, China, working with Russia with which it has created a bloc in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, is working on the domination of “Eurasia”, the land mass that strategists have for over a century regarded as key to world domination.
Now, the US may not have colonies but insofar as it imposes its will on the whole world it is an empire, the most powerful empire in history.
And the economic predictions show that that empire is now on the decline, for a loss of military and political hegemony must surely follow a loss of economic hegemony, even if the speed of that process is open to question.
In general empires don’t bow out peacefully. After two world wars and a wave of colonial revolts, the European empires did give up without a confrontation with their successor, choosing, especially in the case of the UK, to tag onto Washington’s coattails.
But is there any likelihood of the US agreeing to go quietly? Despite not having a war on its own soil for well over a century, it is a militarised society with what is euphemistically called a “defence” budget reaching an enormous $496 billion for 2015.
“Led by Lockheed Martin, the biggest U.S. defense companies are trading at record prices as shareholders reap rewards from escalating military conflicts around the world,” reports the Portland Press Herald.
“As we ramp up our military muscle in the Mideast, there’s a sense that demand for military equipment and weaponry will likely rise,” says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Chicago-based BMO Private Bank, who oversees $66 billion including Northrop Grumman and Boeing shares. “To the extent we can shift away from relying on troops and rely more heavily on equipment — that could present an opportunity.”
So much for the material interest. Then there’s ideology and national psychology.
Can any US leader – or even any mainstream American politician – renounce the manifest destiny doctrine? Yet accepting the rise of an equal or greater power means doing just that.
The Tea Party would look like – well, a tea party – compared to the reactionary movement that would be whipped up by shock-jocks, Fox News, the Republican right wing, in response to a president who proposed that the US accept playing second fiddle on the world stage.
And the Democrats are a thoroughly bourgeois party, as committed to the American ideology as the Republicans, while much of the labour movement seems easily recruited to the patriotic cause.
True, large parts of the US economy have everything to lose by upsetting China and the PRC holds about 8.0% of US government debt, not as much as some people seem to believe but still a healthy slice. But is US capital sufficiently united in its interests to drop its pretensions to world domination and rein in the populist right?
Another persuasive argument against starting a war is the nuclear one. But the balance of terror nearly didn’t work during the Cuban missile crisis, can we be sure that it will when the US empire feels itself to be in terminal decline?
Cyberwarfare is also a growing threat to the US. Is that a new balance of terror? Perhaps, but, the way Washington has reacted to it so far, it could also be a casus belli.
Nor can we be sure that China’s ambitions will remain as modest as they are today. Already XI Jinping appears to be more aggressive about his country’s international role than his predecessors and the CCP’s legitimacy is now primarily nationalist. Rank-and-file nationalism could be a strong pressure on the country’s leadership in the event of a confrontation over territorial claims.
And a territorial claim, combined with a stiff dose of rhetoric about human rights and a little bit of imperial-minded racism, could easily provide a pretext for the US becoming involved in a military confrontation, perhaps limited at first but possibly spiralling out of control.
The real reasons for wars are rarely if ever openly declared – a pretext involving much moral indignation and national affront is usual and the US has particularly fine form in this field – think of the USS Maine in Cuba, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and, as for Iraq, let’s not even go there.
So a scenario of Washington intervening on behalf of one of its clients and the PRC leadership being unable or unwilling to back down on nationalist grounds doesn’t seem so unrealistic to me
I wouldn’t bet the $1.2 trillion of US debt China holds against it.
Given the exciting outcome of Turkey’s parliamentary election, I’m taking my accounts of assignments out of sequence and publishing this from last year’s presidential election. Erdogan won with a satisfactory majority but Selahattin Demirtas’s HDP – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish party that has upset the parliamentary apple-cart in 2015 – was already doing well. And there were signs of trouble ahead for the AKP, as RFI’s perspicacious French service correspondent Jérôme Bastion pointed out to me.
I had forgotten how East-meets-West Istanbul is – the pasajes, the domed mosques, the shots bars, the mackerel sandwiches, the beautiful women, some wearing cover, others wearing very little, parading along Istiklal, the travel posters, reproduced Persian miniatures, bibelots and ageing furniture in my determinedly quaint hotel.
And sophisticated, basking in its history but modern in its own way. Istanbul is unlike anywhere else in the world that I know and totally different to the rest of Turkey.
In the August heat families stroll along the sides of the Bosphorus, the banks not much higher than the sea, as oil tankers head for the Black Sea. Men fish off the bridges joining historic and modern Istanbul. A boy scarcely in his teens plays a hand drum incredibly fast in a passage cutting through a modern office building.
And banners, posters and bunting urge Turks to vote for Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the presidential election, first round on Sunday.
Erdogan, prime minister for the past 11 years, leader of the Islamic, conservative, pro-business Justice and Development Party (AKP) started his rise to the top as mayor of Istanbul and hopes to be elected and reelected as president, staying in power until 2024, the year after the centenary of the modern Turkish republic.
He can’t bear the thought of taking a political back seat, which the presidency should be, being largely ceremonial according to the constitution, so he also hopes to make the position more powerful and remotely control the AKP, despite the constitution’s requirement that he resign from his party if he wins the election.
All of which gives rise to suspicions of megalomania, suspicions that are confirmed by his fondness for megaprojects, including the stadium recently built in Kasmipasa, the district in which he was born.
The RecepTayyip Erdogan Stadium. sits on the side of the hill heading down to the Golden Horn from Pera, the touristy, Istanbuli bourgeois heart of the modern city, on streets that become more like the rest of Turkey as you approach the sea.
On narrow streets men sit drinking tea or Turkish coffee, playing board games and chatting, following the occasional woman who passes by with their eyes, regardless of how well covere she is.
The men all say they support the native son.
“I will vote for Erdogan because we are from the same place and he’s made good jobs and he has brought Turkey growth,” explains Tolga, a new technology worker.
He points to the infrastructure projects – roads, metros, tramways and airports that have been realised under AKP rule.
Erdogan’s opponents accuse him of an Islamist agenda of undermining Turkey’s secular constitution, of authoritarianism and of corruption.
But Turkey has experienced over five per cent growth every year since 2002, so jobs have been created for working-class people, social services have improved and the middle class has seen its living standards rise.
At the AKP’s local campaign office, housewife Rukiye, her hair tightly wrapped in a dark scarf, speaks up for her candidate.
“He is with the poor people and he keeps his word,” she declares.
The party doesn’t have to do much campaigning around here, she says, “Five-year-olds show love for Recep Tayyep Erdogan.”
The AKP organised a massive rally for Erdogan in Istanbul at the weekend and claims, perhaps a little boldly, that over a million people attended it.
Rukiye dismisses alleged proof of corruption on leaked tapes that appear to show Erdogan, his family and allies trying to cover up dodgy dealings.
“It’s all lies,” she exclaims with some vigour. “They say it is a montage – they cut them and edited them. All I can say is it’s all rubbish.”
Most Turks are patriotic to the point of paranoia and Erdogan’s backers claim that, as prime minister, he has put the country on the world’s diplomatic map, declaring support for the Palestinians – although continuing to trade with Israel – backing revolt against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and proposing a model of democratic Islamism for the Muslim world.
“He is leading Turkey very well and in the last 12 years the international view of Turkey has changed and we’re so grateful to our prime minister,” says Hakan, an self-employed man sipping tea by the Golden Horn. “For our country a powerful leader means a powerful country.”
Turkey is a politically polarised country and Erdogan supporters are as fervent as his opponents.
If the opinion polls are to be believed, they’re likely to win him the presidential election.
“It’s a weird situation to be in Taksim right now,” says Mustafa Kuleli, as he looks at the square from the terrace of Starbucks. “You walk into the park or you walk into Taksim Square and you remember. That was a turning point for journalists, and also all citizens, everybody agrees that was a historical moment to be here, to feel that solidarity facing the police, water-cannon, teargas … everything.”
Kuleli is the general secretary of one of Turkey’s journalists’ trade union, elected after he took part in last year’s Gezi Park protests.
They started as a campaign to stop the construction of a mosque and a shopping mall, disguised as an Ottoman-era barracks, on one of central Istanbul’s few green spaces and blossomed into massive anti-Erdogan protests and clashes with the police.
Those heady days are over now and politics is being played out in the electoral arena with Istanbul festooned with banners for the three candidates – Erdogan, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Selahattin Demirtas, but mostly for Erdogan.
Despite the millions who opposed him on the streets last year, opinion polls show the outgoing prime minister has widespread support and could even win the election on the first round.
So were the protests a waste of time?
“Personally I didn’t tie Gezi Park and daily politics,” says Kuleli. “I think it’s more than that. I think it’s like May ‘68 movement in France. After ’68 a right-wing party gained more votes. But that movement affected 40 years everywhere … all over Europe.”
Sitting in a neat office up several flights of stairs, Ender Imrek, a socialist activist who is being prosecuted for his leading role in the protests, explains how the force of the law descended on him an his fellow miscreants.
“The police entered our homes by force,” he recalls. “We were kept at the police station for four days and they mistreated us. They took our hard disks and our notes and our writings.”
He and four codefendants are accused of masterminding the protests across the whole country.
“I said that I would be very proud to have organised them but millions were on the street and it would be discourteous to them to say something like that,” is Imrek’s reply. “The court wanted to jail us but there was a huge public protest so they didn’t do that. But on 21 November our case will go to trial.”
His Labour Party is supporting Selhettin Demirtas of the left-wing Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for president – in a “democratic bloc” against what they see as Erdogan’s growing authoritarian tendencies.
“Erdogan wants to declare his dictatorship in this election and he wants everything to continue as it was in the past,” he says. “We don’t want that, we want democracy and we don’t want things to go as they have in the past.”
Erdogan’s supporters don’t seem too worried about his tough reaction to the protests.
Cernil is a driver working in Austria who is back in Turkey during the election.
Sitting with his wife on Gezi Park, only partially paved over thanks to the protests, he says it was right to break up the protests.
“Yes, it was a little harsh but who cares?” he asks. “They had gone on for too long so they needed to be punished and, if you look at Europe, if there are any protests the police will intervene.”
There is a mixed crowd on Gezi Park on a sunny weekday morning.
A Kurdish labourer brandishing a beer can says he saw police stop campaigners put up posters for Demirtas, who is a Yazidi Kurd himself, and another Kurd also declares his support for the left-winger, explaining that he has encountered discrimination during his 30 years living in Istanbul.
There’s also concern about sectarian divisions in Turkey – both between Kurds and Turks and between majority Sunni Muslims and the Alevi minority, many of whom joined anti-Erdogan rallies.
Whose fault that is changes according to your political and religious affiliation.
“I was not on the side of Erdogan, I used to vote for left-wing parties,” says Ismir, a Sunni textile worker. “But it turned into something sectarian. Alevis started to make a lot of noise and they started to insult us, the Sunnis. That’s why I didn’t like the protests.”
But Feda, just back from studying in the Netherlands, supports the secularist Ihsenoglu and blames Erdogan.
“Rather than supporting the population in Turkey, he is trying to divide them in terms of their religion, their nationality,” she says.
If elected president, Erdogan will “get all the power and do whatever he wants according to his beliefs”, she thinks.
Diyarbakir is a very different city.
The temperature is higher – “38° today, we start to complain when it gets into the 40s,” says my fixer Hasan, passed on to me by the amiably roguish-looking Samet, who was in turn recommended by local journalist Yimlaz Akinci – but the heat is a dry heat, so you’re not drenched in sweat all the time as you are in Istanbul.
The historic town walls are in ark stone and extremely solid, evidence of centuries of conflict, and the street-life is unmitigatedly Middle Eastern, unless you count a superabundance of mobile phone shops as agencies of Western influence.
Tea sellers, some in traditional baggy trousers and colourful waistcoats, patrol the pavement, as do fruit sellers, bread sellers and shoeshine men, there’s a caravanserail and a bazaar, complete with courtyard for meeting, chatting and sipping çai.
Diyarbakir is the biggest town in the majority-Kurdish south-east and a bastion of Demritas’s HDP, which was the Peace an Democracy Party (BDP) when I was last here in 2007.
The BDP was a lot keener to cooperate with journalists back then, it seems – or maybe we prepared our visit better – and a first visit to their headquarters in a modern building in a residential district out of the centre of town leas only to a vague promise to fin us someone to interview tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I struggle unsuccessfully to use the wifi in my hotel, we visit the Human Rights Association, where Demirtas started his career and discuss the Kurdish question with a local lawyer.
Slightly perturbed by our unannounced arrival, Abdusselam Incebren, the assistant secretary of the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association, reproaches us gently but agrees to talk about the organisation’s work.
Formed in the 1980s, following the establishment of a human rights association in Ankara, the organisation has had its work cut out ever since, especially during the state’s attempts to destroy the Kurdish Worker’ Party (PKK) guerrilla movement, which led to the abuses and atrocities associated with such dirty wars.
“The worst time was in the early 1990s,” he recalls. “Why? Because many people were killed, many people were tortured, many people they left home and just didn’t come back. So we are still investigating what happened to these people.”
That was under a secularist government, committed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s vision of a monolithic Turkish nation, a project that the Kurds have always disrupted.
“If you compare today to the past you cannot say that we have those problems,” Incebren points out.
That’s because of one of the many ironies of Turkish politics – the right-wing, Islamic AKP has proved more open to making concessions to Kurdish national sentiment than the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the social-democratic party that is the largest group in the secularist camp.
Not that there isn’t still a heavy and sometimes heavy-handed police and military presence in the south-east.
“It’s not like it was in ‘95-‘96 or up to 2000, people are not lost, tortured,” Incebren goes on. “But one thing we do see is on the streets and in meetings the police abuse their power and that’s a kind of torture.
“With the peace process, if you compare AKP with before there is an improvement in human rights. But if they don’t kill, they don’t torture, they’re still putting people in jail today. The techniques have changed.”
Incebren and his fellow rights workers have fond memories of Demirtas.
“People will never forget him. He was really very good. In the Human Rights Assocation he showed how to be human, how to develop the organisation. We want to take that further. He did a great job, really.”
Edip Yigit is defending several Kurdish activists arrested in 2009 and the ensuing years.
They are being released now because of parliament has finally got around to passing a law banning detention without charge for more than five years.
Although they were members of the PKK’s political wing, he says they posed no threat to security.
Öcalan has declared a truce and, as disciplined cadres, they toe the party line.
“These people had clean records,” he says, sipping çai in a café in the caravanserail. “In court they could find no crime to charge with them.”
The cases are a late example of the dirty war against the PKK even as the PKK government is negotiating with Öcalan.
“Today there is a peace process between the Turkish state and Kurds and, so, to me, this was a big mistake,” comments Yigit.
He blames the arrests on “parallel structures” in the Turkish state, a phrase often used to describe followers of Erdogan’s former ally Fehtullah Gülen, whom he is now purging after a breach that led, among other things, to the corruption scandal.
Kurds welcome the peace process but remain suspicious of the Turkish state’s intentions, notably because of the heavy military presence throughout the country, especially in the south-east, leading them to suspect that the army remains ready to start a new anti-PKK offensive.
The AKP’s openness to negotiations is usually attributed to several factors – pressure on human rights from the European Union, which the government was trying to join, a less firm commitment to Kemalist nationalism and Öcalan’s capture putting the government in a strong bargaining position.
But the narrative in the south-east, which Yigit appears to agree with, is that Öcalan took the initiative.
Kurds who intend to vote for Demirtas sum up their aspirations in a call for “democracy”, by which they tend to mean equal treatment by the state and an end to discrimination.
They are deeply suspicious of Ankara-based parties.
“In the past even the Kurdish language was forbidden, because of one word you could be put in jail for 20 years.” recalls Kasri, a labourer hanging around in Dyarbakir’s bazaar. “Not only this, they killed people, they tortured people for many years, so how can I believe these parties are democratic?”
He’s happy about the peace process but wants it to bring change.
“For about one year nobody is dying. It means a lot that people can sleep, people can be happy, people can work. But one thing, we want democracy – for everyone, not only for Kurds or Turks, for everyone who lives in Turkey.”
The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, now practically independent as local peshmerga and Syrian Kurd fighters fight the Islamic State (ex-Isis) armed fundamentalists and the Iraqi state loses ground to the south, might be expected to strengthen Turkey’s Kurds.
But that would be to discount the Kurds’ long history of internecine squabbles.
The regional government President Massoud Barzani, who is reported to have been acting as a facilitator in contacts between the PKK and the Turkish government, has proved an inconstant ally to the PKK and seems to regard Öcalan as a rival rather than a comrade.
Economic considerations may also undermine his status as an honest broker. Iraqi Kurdistan is now more than solvent thanks to exports of oil to Israel that must pass through Turkey.
Little wonder then that Barzani has promised Erdogan to “play a pacifying role in eastern Turkey and […] help the Turkish Kurds to take their place within the Turkish nation” and that Turkey has granted legal recognition to a new Turkish branch of Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP-T).
“Today the Turkish state understands that it cannot challenge the Iraqi state and so they had to accept these people any more,” comments Yigit. “On the other hand, it was very good for Turkey to have trade with these people and get a warm relationship with them. Why? Because of petrol.”
Even with Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government security forces reportedly trying to prevent fighters opposed to the peace process passing into Turkish territory, there have been sporadic clashes between the Turkish military and armed groups of unclear affiliation, undermining confidence in the peace process in the eyes of some Kurds and even elements in the Turkish general staff.
Erdogan has not hesitated to use divisive rhetoric during the election campaign, pointing out that Demirtas is from the Yazidi minority as well as lashing out at Alevis, Armenians and Jews, indicating that change of tack on the Kurdish question is possible if he is elected president.
A Kurdish channel is broadcasting live interviews with Syrian Kurd fighters battling the Islamic State (ex-Isis) in northern Iraq as we wait to speak to an HDP official at the party’s Diyarbakir headquarters.
They think the peshmerga are a bunch of sissies, according to Hasan, who admires the fight they have put up against the Sunni fundamentalists, who are currently driving Yazidi and other minorities out of the area they control.
It is the election campaign that is on the mind of Meral Damis Bestas, a brisk, trouser-suited woman who, strangely, introduces herself as the wife of HDP president Mesut Danis Bestas.
It’s going well and not just in the south-east, she claims.
“Mr Demritas has already extended his support in Turkey,” she says, “In all of Turkey, wherever he goes, people are giving a lot of sympathy to him because he says new things. He is not saying what people said before. He is guaranteeing no discrimination between people.”
In the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, Demirtas has garnered the support of the hard-left parties who mobilized against Erdogan, boosting his chances of winning votes outside the BDP/HDP’s traditional Kurdish base.
But, despite that and the HDP’s long-standing left-wing credentials, his campaign seems to have focused on fighting discrimination – not just against Kurds but against Alevis, Armenians, women and even, unprecedentedly for Turkey I believe, gays – rather than wider issues of social and economic justice.
“The HDP is left-wing but that does not mean that it rejects other ideas,” is Bestas’s answer when I raise this question. “It’s open to everyone, from any ideology, it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that there are a lot of laws in Turkey that hamper human rights. Beside this there is poverty, in some parts of Turkey people are living in poverty and others they are rich. This is not social justice. Other parties come from a nationalist perspective but Demritas is a man of the people.”
The party does not hide its sympathy for the PKK – posters calling for Öcalan’s release decorate their HQ’s the walls – rather presenting itself as an essential go-between in the pace process.
“I can tell you that we are the guarantors of this peace process,” says Bestas. “Because if there was no Mr Öcalan or HDP fighting for this peace process it wouldn’t work on its own.”
Erdogan is dragging out the process, she claims.
“He wants to make it longer all the time but we are struggling against him.”
She accuses the outgoing prime minister of abusing his position to help his election campaign, a charge that is echoed by OSCE observers.
“It is not an equal race. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lot of advantages,” Bestas says. “There is no fairness in this country. We can only work with our people because we can’t spend millions on our campaign. For Mr Tayyip Erdogan every state organisation, every mayor is working for him. Fifteen or 16 TV channels are supporting him and they are reporting his every word, every speech. So how can we be equal?”
Seated in his carpet shop in the Diyarbakir bazaar, Javed, is a fervent Demirtas supporter because he believes he stands for real democracy.
“Turkish people, Kurdish people, every people working together, working in one country. Before many people in Diyarbakir … Turkish people, Kurdish people, Arabic people also, working together. Democracy like this.”
But one thing Javed will never do is vote for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who are supporting Ihsanoglu.
“Second round I’m giving to Erdogan.”
“I am not giving to CHP other parties with Ihsanoglu.”
Although some street traders and a civil servant tell us they will vote Erdogan in the first round, Demirtas’s campaign has plenty of support in Diyarbakir and he hopes to pass the 10% bar, a performance that, if repeated in a general election, would mean the HDP could have an official group in parliament.
But that won’t put him in the second round, if there is one, and many Kurdish voters are likely to vote Erdogan, if faced with a choice between him and Ihsanoglu.
“This is not our policy,” the HDP’s Bestas, told me. “The AKP is not supporting our principles, so we are completely separate. We will not call on people to vote Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the second round.”
But that doesn’t deter many Kurds – Cengiz Aculca, whom I met in Istanbul, for example.
Aculca, a Kurdish building worker who has lived in Istanbul for 30 years, is going to vote for Selhettin Demirtas but, if there is a second round and Demirtas is eliminated, he will transfer his vote to Erdogan.
The CHP and its enemy-turned-ally, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are beyond the pale, so far as he is concerned.
“They dealt us a great blow during the ‘80s and the ‘90s, especially in the south-eastern part of Turkey,” he says. “Lots of things happened there, so I don’t support them.”
On the city’s main street we run into Bayram.
“I will speak Kurdish,” he announces determinedly and launches into a paean for Demirtas
“With my last drop of blood I will support Mr Demirtas,” he declares. “And Kurds who do not vote for him, they are dishonest because, whether he wins or not, Demirtas is against discrimination, against any people living in Turkey – Armenians, Jewish, Christians and any ethnic group.”
Bayram’s views do not come as a huge surprise since Bayram, a balding but impressively moustached middle-aged man, sports a T-shirt decorated with several portraits – among them those of Öcalan and Che Geuvara – an arm band with the PKK’s symbol and what look like effigies of bullets and an Abdullah Ölan watch.
It appears he was just as open about his political affiliations when he lived in Mersin, a Turkish-majority town on the Mediterranean, where they did not go down to well in certain quarters.
First, he says, he was visited by CHP members who told him in no uncertain terms to get out of town.
Then he was visited by a group of toughs, who knocked him about about and smashed the Öcalan watches he had been selling on the streets, and delivered the same message.
Finally, a message to the same effect came from the mayor and he fled to Diyarbakir.
Hasan and I take lunch in the caravanserail at a stand bearing the name Kamer.
It is run by the women’s rights group that I visited last time in Diyarbakir and provides an income to women who cook at home and come here to sell it. Very good food it is, too.
The management of the Marmara Hotel were “very good” during the Gezi Park protests, Binnaz Toprak assures me as we make our way to the first floor lobby for our interview, I having vetoed the Kitchenette café, where we met, on the grounds of noise.
The hotel opened its groud floor to protesters who had been teargassed or manhandled by the police, she recalls, as the guests, presumably watched the show from their luxury suites.
It’s calm now, apart from the occasional raised voice of an excited client, and the guests loiter in the lobby – many of them Gulf Arab women in niqab or their husbands, some whom are wearing hairnets following hair transplant operations that are apparently not available at home.
Looking out onto Taksim Square and Gezi Park, Toprak, a former academic and CHP MP, is disarmingly frank about the chances of the candidate her party is backing in Turkey’s presidential election, Ekmeleddine Ihsanoglu.
“Unfortunately all polls show that he doesn’t have too much of a chance,” she admits.
It shouldn’t be that way, according to Toprak.
“Normally his chances should be high because the other major candidate, the Prime Minister Erdogan has been using hate speech against people with different identities, he has been screaming on the [TV] screen for the last I don’t know how many years, he scolds people, there is this tension in the country, whereas Ihsanoglu is this quiet man, who is a gentleman, who won’t even answer him.”
But being a gentleman doesn’t seem to be paying off.
The latest poll shows Ihsanoglu at 34%, with Erdogan 57% and left-wing Kurd Selhattin Demirtas 9.0%.
Toprak says Erdogan is primarily responsible for the intense political polarisation in the country today, although she admits that her own camp has contributed to the bitter tone of polemics that turn to vitriol on social media.
“We have been divided into two or even three groups of people – the Kurds, the secularists and the Islamists – and the more he polarises, the more he consolidates his own supporters,” she complains, adding the she fears that “it could come to a civil war between these groups”.
She is not alone in her fear of the future. There’s widespread fear of the secret services snooping on conversations, several cases of phone-tapping have been exposed their, journalists fear for their jobs after Erdogan has picked out colleagues for public criticism – indeed, some have already been fired, allegedly due to government pressure. Several people have mentioned to me or to colleagues that they are thinking of leaving the country of Erdogan wins.
The secular camp has supported military coups to prevent Islamist-led governments in the past but Toprak hopes those days are over, praising Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for forcing the military out of politics.
The CHP, often described as a social-democratic party, has formed an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) behind Isanoglu in this election, a pro-secular bloc that has come together over recent years despite the fact that the MHP is a hard-right party, whose members used to fight in the streets with left-wingers a few decades ago.
It’s just an electoral alliance, Toprak insists, saying that for her the CHP is still a left-wing party.
In 2007, when I accompanied CHP members campaigning for support in Istanbul, I was shocked by the Kemalist dogmatism of its members.
That seems to have changed, if Toprak is anything to go by, although it is difficult imagining this amiable woman ever having been anything other than polite and reasonable.
The secularists may have been too doctrinaire in their defence of Atatürk’s legacy, she admits, looking back on their insistence on banning women wearing head cover in education and public service and regarding religious conservatives as vulgar provincials.
“Maybe it was too radical, the understanding of the party in the past but I think that the party has come to an understanding where it’s willing to accept people who want to live and Islamic way of life, let them live that way of life. Nobody should interfere with the others’ choices.”
That doesn’t mean dropping the fight for women’s rights, however, particularly in the light of AKP leaders’ statements on the matter that lead feminists to fear the worst.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç aroused equal amounts of concern and derision recently when he said that women should not laugh in public, prompting a flood of selfies of immodestly happy females.
Erdogan has expressed shock at the state of dress at Istambuli women, said that women should have three or five children and threatened to criminalise caesarean sections and abortion.
Other party thinkers have said that pregnant women should no go out in public and that it is natural for men to have a number of wives.
“The women’s issue is an important issue,” comments Toprak. “Because I think it’s at the gist of the Islamist project anywhere in the world.
“What’s going to be different if the Islamist come to power? They adjust themselves to new technologies, modernity, buildings, roads, new phones and the modern economy. What would radically change is gender relations and the position of women.”
But don’t the polls show that the majority of the country agree with this conservative religious agenda?
“Yes, they do.”
So what will the CHP do about it?
Again that disarming frankness.
“I have no idea. Despite all that has happened his [Erdogan’s] supporters still support him.”
Voting is brisk at polling stations in Sisli, a middle-class area that is a stronghold of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), shortly after polls open at 8.00am.
Most voters ready to speak to the media have cast their ballot for Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the independent supported by the CHP, citing his honesty and his academic qualifications as reasons for backing him.
But not many are enthusiastic.
Ihsanoglu was secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation until he decided to stand and some secularists find him a strange choice for their party to support.
“His past is more Islamic thoughts and I am not the right for that thinking,” comments Canzu, a finance worker, adding that she doubts he would stand up for the secular values of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In Eyüp, a more socially mixed and politically divided area, Ihsanoglou voter Sacettin, a jeweller, found Ihsanoglu’s campaign lacklustre but blames the CHP and MHP.
“I think that the parties that support him should have been campaigning and it seemed as if he was alone,” he comments.
But he has turned out to vote anyway, afraid that Erdogan’s election would mean “fascism and dictatorship”.
Protective of their right to a secret ballot or discouraged by the men hovering and listening to people talking to the media, many voters decline to comment.
But a number are far from shy of saying that they had voted for Erdogan.
“It’s obvious, we have a leader and we vote for him,” says public employee Erdal. “We love him and so I voted for him.”
“He is a world leader, he cares for Muslims,” declares Mustafa a recent graduate, who seems on very friendly terms with the hoverers.
The run-down Okmeydani neighbourhood is home to members of Turkey’s minorities – Kurds, members of the Alevi sect, recent immigrants from central Asia and Africa.
Here the police are more aggressive, chasing me and my companions, Ugur and Ilyas, off the premises of one school where voting is taking place.
Ihsanoglu has supporters among the Alevi, who feel that Erdogan has stirred up Sunni Muslims against them, while many Kurds back left-winger Selhettin Demirtas.
Some of the Alevi accuse Derirtas of being prejudiced against them, an accusation that Ugur says comes from the Ihsanoglu camp.
His party, the HDP, has a stall manned by volunteers, mostly young although housewife Maryam must be twice the age of her coworkers.
“I am here for peacs the interview is taking place, demanding the identity papers of all the activists and telling them they must pack up their stall.
“The police said they were Kurdish too,” HDP member Aytan says afterwards. “They were talking the Kurdish language with us. They sell their honour in working for the state. We have advice for such people, ‘Police sell simit (cakes) and live honourably.’ ”
On the outside chance that we might snatch an interview with the only candidate who speaks good English, we wait for the result outside the Ihsanoglu headquarters, where a gaggle of cameras point at a podium from which the candidate is expected to address the media.
It’s a long wait, during which I meet Koray Caliskan, a professor I enjoyed interviewing in 2007 and who I am surprised to learn is now moving in CHP circles, given how critical of the dogmatism of the Kemalists on questions such as the headscarf back then.
His clothes seem to have taken a step up the career ladder, too, but he’s still very friendly.
When Ihsanoglu finally arrives there’s a scrum in which I almost lose my mike but his only message, affably delivered, is that it’s too soon to comment.
Despite biscuits and sandwiches provided for the press, we eventually give up.
Erdogan has won. With 52% of the votes, compared to Isahnoglu’s 38.3% and Demirtas’s 9.7%.
After learning of his victory he went to pray in the Eyüp Sultan mosque, built after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, and the place where the Ottoman sultans were crowned.
He then flew to Ankara to meet his ecstatic fans,
“I will not be the president of only those who voted for me, I will be the president of 77 million,” he told them from the balcony of AKP headquarters.
But his idea of uniting the country seems to involve the opposition falling in line behind his agenda.
He called on them to “review their policies” to make them compatible with his “new Turkey” ideal.
“Those who accuse us of one-man rule … should please question themselves sincerely,” he said, an appeal that is likely to fall on deaf ears.
Erdogan can have two terms as president, meaning that he could remain at the head of the country until 2024, allowing him to preside over the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1913.
He hopes to strengthen the presidency and is likely to succeed in that task, having purged much of the state apparatus of opponents afer falling out with US-based cleric Fehtullah Gülen, whose supporters appear to have been behind the leaks of evidence of corruption in his family and entourage.
And soon, as president, he will appoint new members of the constitutional council, further consolidating his power.
That election is likely to be brought forward, meaning another no-holds-barred election campign.
The largest opposition parties, the CHP and the MHP have suffered a severe blow in failing to force Erdogan to go to a second round.
Their morale was low ahead of the election result but may have received a small boost from the fact that opinion poll predictions of an Erdogan win of 58% or more proved excessive.
Demirtas’s vote was higher than the HDP has ever won under any of its previous names.
Meanwhile, Turkey must find a new prime minister and the AKP a new leader, since the constitution stipulates that the president must not be a member of a political party.
Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davurtoglu is tipped as the most likely new premier, although Transport Minister Binali Yildriim’s hat is also in the ring.
Outgoing president Abdullah Gül can now return to party politics but there is speculation that economist Numan Kirtulmus, not currently an MP, may be brought in to head the party.
The AKP being a coalition of religious conservatives, business interests and political right-wingers and not immune to personal rivalries, divisions may appear in its ranks.
Its Islamist predecessors have always relied on a strong leader, which is also much of Erdogan’s appeal, and broken up when the leader exits the scene.
So, despite a conclusive presidential election result, a return to the turbulent normal for Turkish politics is on the cards.
Victory is no sooner announced than crisis comes knocking for the AKP.
Erdogan, who must resign from the party to become president, makes no secret of his wish to keep a deciding influence on it and, apparently impressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrangement with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, wants replacement who will be very much under his shadow.
Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davurtoglu seems to fit the bill, although Transport Minister Binali Yildirim’s name has also come up.
Erdogan also wants to keep tight control of the party.
But, as Erdogan’s supporters were recovering from the victory party, Gül, who cofounded the AKP with Erdogan, announced that he would be rejoining the party when he quits the president’s job and there is little doubt that he would seek the party leadership.
Later in the day the party’s executive then announced that the special conference to choose a new party chief will be held the 27 August, the day before Erdogan is sworn in, meaning that Gül will still be barred from party membership, unless he resigns early and that may well be his next move.
Not everyone in the AKP is happy with Erdogan’s plans to run the party by remote control and Gül may be able to muster significant support for a leadership bid, which could even become a stepping stone to the premiership if he returns to parliament after the next election.
The former comrades-in-arms are believed to have had their differences over recent years.
When the government tried to ban the use of Facebook and Twitter during anti-Erdogan protests last year, he declared that he would continue to tweet.
The brewing crisis is not a good sign for a party that will soon have to fight a general election.
Nor does it bode well for Erdogan’s plan to strengthen the president’s powers.
To do that he must change the constitution, which would require votes in parliament than the AKP can currently muster even if it remains united.
He may hope that an early general election will bring more MPs, although his own election win was less convincing than some polls had predicted, a result that weakened his standing in the party.
If there’s also a revolt in the AKP that could mean electoral victory leads to political crisis, undermining Erdogan’s enormous ambition and even giving new heart to his depressed and demoralised opponents.