Kerem Öktem, Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation, New York: Zed Books, 2011.

Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation is an installment in the series “Global History of the Present,” which is intended to introduce aspects of world history since 1989 and the end of the Cold War. Rather than trying to write an all-encompassing history of the past two and half decades, the series deals with limited subjects and buys into the premise that, more than ever, the world consists of multiple, overlapping, fragmented narratives that defy hegemony and polarities, while also connecting local developments to international trends. Angry Nation immediately predates the Syrian Civil War and the explosive protests in Gezi Park, but Öktem provides a lucid introduction to the contemporary issues.

Despite the purpose of the series, Öktem actually begins his narrative in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire when, in a desperate gambit to restore Ottoman power, the empire underwent a series of reforms that included bringing in European instructors to teach in military academies. As the empire broke up, Turkey was flooded by Muslim refugees from the Balkans, invaded by Greece, and targeted for colonization by European powers. At about the same time, the Ottoman Committee for Union and Progress conducted a genocide against the Armenians in eastern Anatolia. In the early 1920s at the height of the Greek invasion of Anatolia, a new state formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire when the leaders of the army, including one Mustafa Kemal, declared that the Sultan had no authority and formed their own de facto government. After re-securing territorial integrity, the military created a new Turkish Republic, abolished the Caliphate and, by totalitarian means, ushered in secular, national, “modernity.” During this period (1920-46) there came into being what Öktem refers to as “the guardian state” in Turkey, a coalition of bureaucrats, military commanders, and the judiciary that exists outside the influence of the elected officials.

Democratization of Turkey began in 1946 when, for the first time, candidates from multiple parties were allowed to stand for office. It was exceptional when the military-endorsed candidate won the election, which led to the primary tension in Öktem’s narrative: the authority and influence of the elected officials and the ability–and willingness–of the military to stage coups and to rewrite the constitution when they felt their position threatened. Öktem also reveals the military brutality, torture, killings, and propensity for staging communal violence in order to justify seizing power. Would that the situation be so simple, though. Öktem interweaves the Turkish claims to being a military nation, ethnic violence against and oppression of the Alevis and the Kurds, the latent and increasing Islamism, membership in the NATO alliance, attempts to join the European community, and the ruthless economic development programs. And all this before he gets to the year 1989.

Öktem convincingly argues that the Turkey of the past decade is not the same country as the Turkey of the 20th century. Turkey’s economy is more stable than it was in the 1990s, it has undergone a resurgence in both exports and tourism, and, Gezi park notwithstanding, has not had the same level of violence–sectarian or political–as it had in past decades. While the power of the Turkish military is waning, the deep state actors have not disappeared and the same underlying tensions between the illusion of a secular heritage and (moderate) political-Islam, Kurd-Turk, Muslim Turkey-Christian Europe still exist. The Arab Spring has since changed the political climate of the Middle East and made some of Öktem’s statements about Turkey’s position in the region obsolete, particularly with respect to Syria, but the basic threads spun out remain intact.

The one main complaint I can voice about Angry Nation, and one I had at several points, is that individuals from among the deep state actors, unless they end up also becoming public figures, appear in the narrative as the Wizard of Oz, only somewhat more sinister. This is likely by design. Öktem shows the genesis of these forces in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, but, almost a century later, the impression is that they remain a vague, menacing, and unchanging entity. And yet he indicates that there was a slow process of liberalization and a gradual loss of control over the bureaucracy and judiciary by the military. The narrative in Angry Nation is plenty complicated without broaching those institutions per se, but it sometimes seemed as though Öktem set them up as the boogey-man government in a dystopia. Not that that characterization is wholly unwarranted.

Angry Nation is a political history of Turkey designed to show the underlying tensions extant since the creation of the country and how those tensions shaped Turkey since the end of the Cold War. Öktem argues that these underlying issues, including the authoritarian nature of the state, have created a nation seething with discontent. He suggests that there are three main potential futures for Turkey: resurgence of the guardian state, replacement of the guardian state with the tutelage of Islam, or the development of a legitimate liberal state. Two years later, all these possibilities still exist. But in the wake of the Gezi Park protests, sparked by the Erdogan government’s plans to tear down a park and replace it with a shopping mall, where police used riot gear and tear gas to evict protesters and soldiers handed gas masks to the civilians, it seems that Öktem is correct about the frustration level of many Turkish people.

Gendered reading

2013 has been a busy year for me and so I have written less. The first bunch of months were spent cramming academic monograph after academic monograph into my brain in preparation for my comprehensive exams and the next bunch were spent flailing about in search of a dissertation topic. I have, though, read twenty-three books off my non-academic reading list. The authors of these books span three centuries, represent ten nationalities, wrote in seven different languages, and include five nobel laureates.[1] Not one of those books was written by a woman.

Nor is this a new development. There are a few books by women that have a special place in my heart–Mists of Avalon, The Sunne in Splendour, to name two–but these tend to be the exceptions. None of the books on my list of top books, up to 30 at my next update, were written by a woman and even the ones by women that I like aren’t that close to the list.[2]

When I noticed this trend earlier this year I looked for lists of great books by women I could add to my list. I did find some books to add, but two things jumped out. First, there were much longer lists of books written by men and, second, many of the books by women looked entirely unappealing to me. I am sure that some of them are really well written, but excellent prose only goes so far. I have no real answer as to why more books by women don’t appeal to me. Even speculating about genre or intended audience or subject matter as a turnoff for me comes from a place of spectacular ignorance.[3]

My current favorite authors are George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Orhan Pamuk, David Foster Wallace, and Kazantzakis, and my favorite books includes a number of other books that are satirical, rough and raw, and often have a political bent. I also have a soft spot for fantasy and historical fiction, though I don’t usually judge them on the same score card as literature. Too, I generally dislike most sentimental novels.[4]

The list is a literary gentleman’s club, but not intentionally so. I have never once turned away a book for fear of cooties or a perceived threat to my manhood. All I ask is that a book entertain and engage me. At this point I could continue to speculate on what I don’t read more books by female authors, but let me instead put out a request. At the bottom of this post is a list of books by female authors currently in my queue. Given my reading proclivities, what books by female authors should I add to the list? Are there any of the ones on my list that should bubble to the top?

In addition, I am interested to know if other people have encountered a similar gendered reading slate–or if others see some reason why it might crop up.

The List:
The Flamthrowers, Rachel Kushner
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
Almost English, Charlotte Mendolson
Unexploded, Alison Macleod
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Jenny, Sigrid Undset
A Gentle Hell, Autumn Christian
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos

I am also aware of and will get around to reading Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood and finishing the books by Colleen McCullough, Sharon Kay Penman, and Mary Renault at some point.

[1] One of my reading goals is to read something by all the Nobel laureates.

[2] I should also note that here I am only talking about Literature, some of my favorite academic books are written by women.

[3] A friend once commented to me that I like my authors to be somewhat cracked and damaged, so maybe the female authors are too stable as people to keep my attention.

[4] Insert joke about men not having emotions here.


I have always hated my handwriting. After years of practice, writing papers, essays, blog posts, journal entries, and letters, I have reached a point where I would describe my hand as legibly neat. Not elegant or beautiful, but workmanlike. I am self-conscious about its clumsiness, and that it appears (in my sole estimation) as that of an uncouth teenager.[1] In contrast,typed fonts are pristine.

Some of my least favorite assignments in high school were ones that involved required marginalia in English classes. I distinctly recall two classes that wanted the students to underline and/or annotate poems and stories–a task from which I recoiled on several levels. First, there was my handwriting. I thought that any marginalia of merit should be neat, at least to the point where it does not detract aesthetically from the sterile print on the page. In this, I was in awe of my artistic classmates and those with elegant script. On this level, the comments were irrelevant; just the thought of my ghastly print filled me with dread.

Then there was the commentary. What was I supposed to write? Noting allusions? Themes? Summary? Commentary? Emotes (the king then mostly found on AOL Instant Messenger)? And cui bono? Were these marginalia for my own future remembrance? (Unlikely; I don’t even remember which texts I annotated.) For a future reader? (Unlikely; at least one was a poem in a text book bought for the class.) For the teacher? (Probably, since it was for a grade. [2]) That I did not like most of the books I read for class in high school did not help this paralysis either, but I never grew out of my distaste for marginalia. I still don’t like my handwriting or really know what to say in margin notes. I will underline passages on photocopied articles, but mostly because those are short enough that I can flip through them quickly–with longer books I take copious notes by hand on another sheet of paper. It is a labor intensive alternative to marginalia, but I believe it has actually helped me and that I not merely being obstinate in this practice.

But I am not universally opposed to marginalia–just to my own. One of my favorite things about buying used books is finding some touching inscriptions and marginalia. One recent example is that while reading Bend Sinister by Nabokov, there was an early scene where the Professor Adam Krug idly corrects the punctuation of a document he is reading. The image evidence amused the earlier reader and s/he added a smiley face in the margin. This earlier reader, though not one for words, was an incessant commenter, employing lines, starts, and question marks at regular intervals, with a periodic exclamation point for punctation. None of the comments were as charming as the emoticon, though, and the more frequently they occurred, the more distracting they became. [3]

In fact, this is something I notice about a lot of marginalia from a single hand: an occasional comment is like chatting about a book with someone; a constant barrage is like doing a close reading of the same text–unless there is an ulterior motive (class, publication) it can distract from enjoyment. In the library today, I put back two books that I want to read because I found entire chapters covered in extended commentary. [4] Marginalia can be a great boon, and to see several voices engaged, blindly, in discussion can be fascinating, but too much marginalia seemingly without purpose is rapidly becoming one of my pet peeves because it gets in the way of my reading of the book.

And one more thing: don’t write in library books, it is incredibly selfish. Seriously.

[1] And, of course, as I write this out by hand, I botch spelling “uncouth,” and awkwardly superimpose the correct letters, adding to my frustration.

[2] I can better appreciate the issues with grading now, but I still don’t love assigned marginalia and would rather push for more writing, instead.

[3] To be fair, the passage that received the exclamation point was shocking.

[4] I blame the subject, in part. I can see how philosophical novels could draw a wordy and opinionated audience.

Why Greece?

Yes, I should be writing my dissertation chapter, but this is a pertinent digression that I don’t want to lose track of. When I start missing deadlines I will listen critique of my method. Until then, meh. [1]

Even among other historians I sometimes get asked why I study Greece. I am not Greek, the relevance to modern society is at best limited, there aren’t jobs, it requires not just one or two modern languages, but also several dead languages. I generally just shrug off the questions by noting that I have studied other things, too, this is just the one that stuck. The reservations about difficulty and languages and relevance make some bit of difference, but they are technical questions, not ones that actually pertain to chose Greece. To wit, if I was on this path for money, I wouldn’t pursue history at all, and languages are not the boogeymen that people make them out to be.I have a love-hate relationship with languages, but the access to other cultures is a thrill– sometimes comparable to encouraged voyeurism.[2] I study–and learn–whatever interests me. So, why Greece? I don’t know, I just find it interesting.

But “it is interesting [to me]” is a cop-out answer. I was probably looking to cast myself as an indulgent man of letters or some equally antiquated and dramatic role, but “I don’t know” is all I really had. Until now, thereby making what follows the big reveal.

What I find (most) interesting about Greece are the discontinuities and paradoxes, the fissures and ironies, particularly in how Greece and Greeks are conceived of in the modern imagination. I like that the tradition, perpetuated by the Greeks themselves, tends towards the universal, while there was such diversity in experiences that the particulars often bear little resemblance to the universal. I like the political satire. I like the language that has such deep shades of meaning, even if that can take extra time to translate. I like the stories preserved in the literature and the histories, from a culture that straddled the divide between many of the complexities of civilization that resonate with a modern audience (currency, criminal courts, constitutions, democracy, etc) and “primitivism” and “backward credulity.”

All of these issues appear in other cultures and other times, but it is the way in which they converge in Greece that continues to fascinate me. The treatment of Greece as either as the foundation of Western civilization or as an integral piece in the teleological march from the dawn of mankind to the modern Western European/American world seems to have glossed over the incongruities–”Greece” is a cut gem in the crown of history, alongside “Egypt,” “Rome,” and the rest. But it seems to me that while those other gems are no less faceted and flawed, they are more accurately described as a single gem. “Greece” is, at best, a dozen polished rocks loosely bound together to resemble a single gem. Perhaps I carried my metaphor a step too far, but this tension is one of the main things that I keep coming back to when thinking about Greece.

The fragmentary nature of Greece is also one of the areas in which I find particular relevance to the modern world, but that is a topic for another day.

[1] The good, writerly words have all been appropriated for other sentences. What is left is “meh.”
[2] I don’t consider myself good at languages by any stretch of the imagination, either, though I have some level of comfort reading five languages other than English. Too, each one has been easier than the last, not just because they are related, but because I have managed to pick up enough grammar along the way to fit the puzzle pieces together. I still need a dictionary most of the time.

An insidious hierarchy

One of the harshest criticism that a professor can give to a graduate student is that s/he writes “like an undergrad.” PhD students bemoan that MA students do not participate in class discussion. Graduate students and professors alike rend their clothing and tear at their rapidly thinning hair to lament that undergraduates don’t go to class, don’t do the reading, they don’t edit, cannot spin out mellifluous prose, and (to hear some people talk) haven’t a solid thought in their airy little heads.

These are stereotypes and stereotypes contain a kernel of truth. In the case of the last example, it probably comes from the fact that most undergrads are not old enough to drink (legally). People need time to grow up, to learn, to mature. Writing like an undergrad–or acting like an undergrad more generally–is probably influenced in some ways by the college culture and college experience in the sense that the environment one lives in is going to affect behavior, but it is going to be even more influenced by the student’s age and educational experience. So, too, upper level undergrads are going to be different than freshmen. And there is no immediate change in newly-minted graduate students from “undergrad” to “grad.” Learning is a process, intellectual development is a process. One hopes that there will be an evolution from the first year through graduation and then continued development through a graduate school career.

Using “undergrad” as a term to imply intellectual retardation, even retardation through youth, is a problem on several levels. First, it implies a sharp division in ability, when there is really only a division in expectations. Second, such comments reinforce an elitist, ivory-tower perception of graduate schol. Third, and most problematic for me, it is not a constructive critique. It carries with it a number of implications, but doesn’t actually convey in what ways (analysis, source use, insightfulness) the graduate student needs to differentiate him or herself. One would hope that there would be further comments that would be more constructive, but the comparison to an undergrad doesn’t seem to serve any positive purpose.

The hierarchy implies an unnaturally sharp distinction between the categories. I mostly note this because one of the things I see most frequently on social media w/r/t student exams or papers is that undergrads claim radical historical change happens at unnaturally specific dates. And yet, the act of donning a robe and walking across a stage is a ritual that transforms a high schooler into a college student and a college student into a graduate student? Changed expectations are one thing, but the change in performance is not going to happen when the students walk across that stage.

A few weeks ago there was a John Hodgman quote floating around social media that highlighted how scary learning can be. Admitting ignorance is conflated with admitting inadequacy too often. Ignorance is correctable, but the admission, the struggle, is difficult. The mistake I feel that I am watching on the part of educators is sloppily,haughtily, fogetting how difficult this process actually is. None of us sprang from Zeus’ forehead fully formed. Yes, learning and school come easier to some than to others, but to forget that learning is a process only serves to discourage students. When students are discouraged from learning we have failed.

Writing this piece reminds me of an incident in high school where one of my friends was called out for hypocrisy over an essay for which she won a prize. I am not trying to excuse myself of wrongdoing, though. I am guilty of contributing to this hierarchy, too. I lament the state of undergrads and their inability to read a short assignment or participate in class, or how they can’t seem to answer all the questions on an exam. I generally make these comments while in the throes of grading. This is a form of venting and, in my experience, doing so makes it easier to continue grading. I do my best to avoid broadcasting these laments on social media or even to too many people. I need to vent, but the jokes and the complaints are not something that most people should hear–or should care about.Instead, I want to be more conscious of making these statements and caution against, in all our exhaustion, frustration, and stress, using this sort of hierarchical, exclusionary, and unconstructive language.

Here is my main issue with this hierarchy. Whether to cover up their own insecurities or out of a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, academics seem to go over the top with these complaints about “undergrads” (and usually seem to mean “underclassmen” for “undergrad”) and forget that they, too, were once undergrads and were once MA students. I suppose that it is possible that all of these other instructors were perfect students back in their day–always going to class, doing the readings, talking in class, editing their papers, having fully-formed and developed thoughts in their work–but I know that I was not. At one point in my college career I regularly skipped class, fallen asleep in class, did not edit papers, did not do the reading, and sometimes even turned in assignments that I am now ashamed to have attached my name to. Even when I did turn in work that I was proud of at the time, it was not always great work. That is because I was young. There were some subjects I wasn’t good at, there were some that I didn’t care that much about. I fully admit that I was not a particularly good student in college nor am I a great student even today and I wonder at the irony inherent in that I am now teaching college students and have to give advice on how to study on a regular basis. When I feel myself becoming too myopic about students, I remind myself of this past, that I was once there too.


The corollary to what I just wrote is that there will always be a wall of sorts between what the teacher says and what the students hear, there will always be students who give less than their full attention to the instructor, and there will always be an impatience on the part of students to find out their grade–something exacerbated, not created, by the Pavlovian nature of a grade and standardized test based educational system. On the former points, it is frustrating dedicate hours to preparing for class and to see apathy on the faces of the crowd, but even the best lecturers are going to have to deal with that. On the last point, grading papers is one of those things that it is impossible to understand how long it takes unless you have had that experience yourself. Are these things frustrating? Yes, absolutely, yes. But undue venting about these issues is also counter-productive. The type of understanding I have suggested throughout this piece the understanding David Foster Wallace was talking about in This is Water. “Understanding” and “patience” are not simple solutions to a long-trending institutional problem in education, higher education, and society, but it seems that to do otherwise is contributing to the problem.

Reading and the Context of Reading

I just finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and it was phenomenal. I will be writing a few posts about this book over the next week or two (two weeks from now is my Thanksgiving Break), including an actual review. For now, though, I am still digesting what I read, in part because I’ve been busy and in part because it is that sort of book. I just briefly want to note something about exigent circumstances.

One of my favorite books, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March was trashed in a recent review by a reader whose taste I respect. His critique was that the book dragged with excessive (“Dickensonian”) description and moralizing that is particularly outdated. I don’t totally disagree with him, either. The book does moralize, and were I to reread it, I may well agree that the story drags. However, I read it at the end of summer as my job wound down and before graduate school began, so I had ample free time in which to read. Now I am teaching, tutoring, working on my dissertation and trying to be more active in my other writing pursuits…time is at more of premium. For me, at least, the time I have to read has an influence on my enjoyment of books.

In The Order of the Book, Roger Chartier talks about the overall structure of a book and refers to the debate about breaking the bible into chapter and verse. Creating these chunks, they said, destroyed the unity of the document and encourages the reader to treat each section individually, rather than as part of a much larger whole. When a reader [1] has to read a book in short spurts over the course of a month or more, the circumstance of reading impedes the ability of the narrative to enthrall the reader. I noticed this because Snow put me into a trance with its beautiful prose and multiple, overlapping and interwoven narrative threads. When I could only read one chapter at a time and, at times, with days passing between sessions, I felt as though there was a level of the book I was missing out on. Yes, I got the same story and read the same words as I would have otherwise, but my inability to dedicate enough time meant that I missed out on some of the magic. Snow was a great book in any situation, but if I had had the time to spare, I could have read it in just a day or two, only to emerge dazed and euphoric.

Not all books are good enough to induce this trance. Most good books don’t even have this effect, though I suspect that it is easier to experience when the reader has more free time. Ironically, it was the powerful of effect of this book and the exigent circumstances that broke the trance that suggested to me the importance of the context of reading.

[1] The anonymous “a reader” from here on out is a shorthand for “me as reader”

The Spartan Mirage and American Militarism

Several years ago I wrote a post for this site claiming that the Spartan mirage is/was rooted in military excellence. As I later pointed out on that post, this characterization is inaccurate. In fact, the Spartan mirage stems from the stability of the Spartan constitution. The state did not suffer from the same internecine stasis that plagued other poleis and thereby allowed the Spartans to have an extended period of military hegemony in classical Greece. But I still had the idea that the mirage was one of military invincibility, ironically calcified by the death of 298 Spartans at Thermopylae, damaged by the Spartan surrender at Sphacteria and shattered by the defeat at Leuctra.

I built the idea from my own readings of translated sources as a college student. I had also heard the term mirage, but I did not know the origin. To me it was self evident that military prowess–the eternal demonstration of Spartan power–was at the crux of the mirage, [1] after all, the other Greeks were aware of the perioikoi with whom they might have traded [2] and they also were aware of the extremely precarious position that the Spartan helot system created.[3] While neither of these situations is the same as stasis, the state of factional violence between citizens, neither was Sparta an entirely stable state.

Even as I write these words in light of what I now know about Greek culture, philosophy and society, they ring false. A citizen body without factional strife was such an ideal situation that if it could be maintained on the brink of a precipice, that could be preferable to stasis.[4] To keep that utopia, any and all means of preservation would be warranted. Sparta might be weird in organization, but whatever weirdness appeared acceptable.[5] The real point here is that this is a first impression that I held on to for far longer than I had any business doing. While my mistaken belief is my own problem, I want to suggest here that it is not one isolated in me.

In 2005, Andrew Bacevich, a self-identified conservative, wrote The New American Militarism. He argues that in the past century Americans of all political affiliations have become enthralled with military power. [6] Bacevich tries to warn the readers about the dangers of excessive militarism and how it shapes the consciousness of American citizens. I generally agree with his sentiments, but, for my part, I wonder if this sort of cultural fascination makes it more likely that Americans identify the singularity of Sparta in the military success rather than in the political stability. Instead of seeing political stability as leading to military success, military power could be what ensures political stability. More than simply being a chicken-and-egg problem, this inversion can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions entirely.

[1] I am now aware that this is faulty logic. Invincibility could be a mirage of sorts, but the (unbroken?) string of military victories is a fact. The mirage, then, would be the perceived cause of the success.

[2] Recall that the people who defended Athenian honor in the Spartan war council, according to Thucydides, were Athenian merchants. Presumably they were aware who produced any goods they traded for.

[3] In the mid-fifth century, the Athenians sent a military force to help suppress a helot revolt. During the Peloponnesian Wars, one of the Athenian strategies was to encourage helots to escape from Sparta.

[4] Hyperbole, but not by much.

[5] Emphasis on appearance. I am quite convinced by Stephen Hodkinson’s Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta that Sparta functioned much more normally than assumed. Lysander might still take the rap for unsettling the politics, but not because he introduced money to Sparta.

[6] For a single snapshot of this phenomenon, one could look at the foreign policy debate in the 2012 presidential debate.

“If I were a rich man, my wife would have a proper double chin.”

I have long enjoyed “Fiddler on the Roof,” and re-watching some of the video clips on Youtube has reminded just how much Reb Tevye amuses me. But more than just Reb Tevye as an uneducated, goofy, poor Jewish man, I was noticing the various expectations he has of what being rich entails, and how much these expectations contrast with the expectations of wealth today. Reb Tevye wants a tin roof, wood floors, and geese and chickens in his lawn. And he wants his wife to have a double chin–a sign that she has more than enough to eat. These days, eating enough to have a double chin is all too easy to do. Eating well enough to avoid the extra chin (regardless of the quantity) is what costs money.

But how realistic are Reb Tevye’s expectations and desires? People with more money certainly do have more clout in society, but I doubt many have a staircase to nowhere, just for show. This also made me wonder what “If I were a rich man” would like today, either about contemporary society or just produced in 2013 instead of the 1960s. Does it have the same resonance with a modern audience that it had half a century ago?