Norman Finkelstein and J.S. Mill

In case you don’t see me in the photo, I’m second from the right in the back. This photo was taken at the end of a very illuminating week of studying John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty with the controversial professor from Brooklyn, Dr. Norman Finkelstein.

I realize that a lot of my friends out there might have never heard of him. I caution you in advance to not believe everything you hear, especially if it comes from Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz. The documentary film American Radical is a good introduction to the man and his work, but after spending a week with him, I would hesitate to lead with the word “radical” because although he identifies himself as a Marxist (who nonetheless appreciates classic liberal thought), he is not the raving firebrand that his critics would suggest. His major transgression against the status quo, if you can even call it that, is that he dares to speak out about Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians — and the complicity of the United States — as a Jew. It doesn’t help his popularity in mainstream circles that he also rebukes fellow Jews for politicizing the Holocaust as someone who has lost as much as anyone from that dark and depraved period of history. His heritage is important because he cannot so easily be dismissed as an anti-Semite (although he is called a self-hating Jew by the likes of Dershowitz), and many of his supporters in the Arab world find it more than refreshing to hear a Jew standing up for their rights.

This is his significance to society, but beyond that, I would not even call him eccentric (which he would find ironic given the amount of time we spent in class defining Mill’s use of the term and lionization of the concept). He is, without a doubt, an exceptional professor in that he can draw out even the most timid of students and perfectly summarize even the most convoluted of ideas. He also speaks in a deliberate and emphatic manner that forces you to pay attention to every word, even if the topic may be of only partial interest. Yet, he’s modest: claiming that his only real gift to the world is his uncanny ability to give ample time and attention to topics that most others find dull — like the footnotes of Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel. He also concedes that he is not easily flustered or offended in debates, which makes it easier to tear through the shaky logic and ad hominems that are often slung his way by less conscious scholars and commentators.

If there’s one main thing I will take away from his course, it’s the knowledge that there is no scientific formula or prescription that will solve all of society’s problems. Even the greatest philosophers were left with more questions than answers. This is not to say that we should accept the status quo — only that we should keep in mind that there is no consensus on even the most fundamental values. My liberty could be my neighbor’s oppression and so on. There may be some things that are clearly wrong, but there isn’t so much, if anything, that is clearly right.

If there’s a second thing I will take away, it is the idea that everything we think is true now could be not only proven false in a century or so but viewed as utterly ridiculous. There was a time, after all, where most people thought the world was flat (although not in 1492, this is a popular myth). I hope this will help me to relax just a little in my foolhardy attempt to solve all of the world’s problems. It’s a reason to be humble and to question anyone who claims absolute certainty.

If there is a third and final thing I will take away, it is Whitney Houston (inside joke).


Thanksgiving in Turkey – No Jokes Please!

I don’t want to offend any of my Turkish friends by making jokes about eating Turkey in Turkey, so I won’t — and it’s easier to restrain myself given the fact that I did not eat any turkey and that my suggestion to stick a miniature Turkish flag in the top of the bird was soundly rejected.

Nonetheless, the dinner was nothing short of remarkable. The hotel staff turned our classroom into a banquet. We ate greens, mashed potatoes, and other Thanksgiving-appropriate things I can’t remember at the moment (likely due to the red wine I consumed, which was a Thanksgiving first for me but a practice that will undoubtedly continue when among friends). The Americans in our group took the opportunity to present on the holiday, which, of course, is not generally celebrated in Turkey. The presentation was aided by a large screen and my laptop, where we displayed representative photos of forgotten moments in history and charming videos of Turkey fryers catching fire (did you know this was a major problem?) and Black Friday shoppers streaming into a department store like a dam just broke. I was relieved to find out later that no Indians or Wal-Mart employees were killed this year.

One of my smart classmates told me that the name “Black Friday” actually comes from accounting terminology. It represents the main period where retailers are “in the black” — turning a profit. Of course, this would also imply that it’s one of the worst periods for consumers, who buy things on credit with almost religious zeal that will be obsolete in a year or less. This is one of my least favorite days of the year, and I was happy to spend it elsewhere. I tend to stay at home with my food hangover on Black Friday, and I equate shopping on any day of the week — black, white, or red — with a trip to the dentist’s office. In the larger sense, consumer holidays, particularly the kind that occur the day after we gather with family and allegedly give thanks for the things we already have, are, in my humble opinion, the best evidence that we are on a steady path to hell.

Still, if anyone witnessed any Black Friday horror stories like these or, more compellingly, these, I would like to hear them. The less cynical side of me is more interested in protests against Wal-Mart for its abusive labor practices.

I just hope my friends and family had as good a time as I did. The one thing I truly missed — other than Mom — was American football. That’s one guilty pleasure I still have not fully rejected. It’s the kind of thing that keeps you from thinking about downtrodden Wal-Mart employees and declining standards of living.

My 26th Birthday in Turkey


I had an amazing time celebrating my 26th birthday in Turkey (Sile to be exact) despite dealing with an awful stomach virus that continues as I write this. I’m glad I pushed myself to not only leave the comfort of my room (and bathroom) but to eat a giant plate of pasta and a piece of what is best described as ‘psychedelic’ birthday cake when most medical knowledge would dictate that I stick to liquids only.

The liquids would come later — in the form of beer and scotch. Hey, 26 only comes once in a lifetime!

I want to thank everyone for making it so unique. I was especially touched by hearing the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ in more than six languages. I have never had a birthday like this prior and will probably never have one like it again. Even the indoor smokers who lit up repeatedly despite the obvious prohibitory wall signs and our occasional rebukes made it all the more interesting. I just wish my friends and family back home could have enjoyed it with me.

Istanbul as Global Capital?

An interesting idea, but I can’t claim it as my own. See here.

Turkey’s geopolitics and human rights record notwithstanding, I think Istanbul should be judged by its own merits (it is not the capital of Turkey, after all) and viewed somewhat in isolation. It would be great to see a solution to the traffic problem, though.

My Thoughts on the Election

It’s a little strange being in Turkey when I know that so many of my friends back home are either celebrating Obama’s victory or downplaying its significance (more likely because they are to the left of Obama rather than to the right). I hate to be a downer to those who fall somewhere on the spectrum ranging from elated to relieved — but I feel neither. It’s not just because I am far away in Turkey — everyone knows that U.S. policies affect just about everyone on earth — it also has to do with the unavoidable truth that this election will change nothing. There was plenty to be excited about in 2008 just by virtue of seeing the first non-white present take office, but this is no such historical occasion. I would like to think that the next four years will be better than the first if we ‘give him time,’ but this is the same thinking that led to costly complacency (and very little improvement) in U.S. policies during Obama’s first term.

Obama said almost the same thing in 2008 that he said this morning: something to the effect that it’s up to the American people to make change (as they ‘made change’ by putting him in office). I wish people would take this to heart and not reduce political activity to a vote every 2-4 years. I have said this plenty, but I will say it again because I, myself, need such a reminder whenever I get caught up talking about elections, the two-party system/double-headed monster, and democracy in the more general sense. The United States still sees itself as the paragon of democracy — and, of course, Obama took the occasion of his victory to repeat the tired, arrogant assertion that the United States is the ‘greatest country on earth’ — but If democracy (or ‘greatness’) is merely the continual replacement in government of one group of elites by another, then I want a different form of governance.

And no, Mr. O’Reilly, it’s not because I want “stuff.” I want justice. Your analysis doesn’t even take into account people like me — white people who are not part of the establishment. It also leaves out the simple fact that Obama IS the establishment. The only real difference between him and Romney is that he pretends to care about those outside of it. As cold and crass as his ‘47%’ statement was, Romney made it crystal clear who his real constituency was.

Neither major party represents me or the majority. The third party candidates, while in some cases quite noble and articulate (Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson in particular), were so marginal as to be irrelevant in the sense that the only people who knew about them were likely those who already agreed with their positions. They did not have the opportunity, due to media neglect and the Democrat-Republican collusion to keep them out of the debates, to shape the views of the people and effectively challenge the status quo. I consider this a shame and regret that I do not have an answer to it.

I prefer revolution to reform — and I made this clear to my classmates — this is a broken system that cannot be repaired. It has actually gotten worse over the years — if we recall the substantial influence of Ross Perot in the 1990’s as a third-party candidate. Even if the system were expanded to include more parties in a meaningful way, the questions still remains: Would this change the fundamental core of our country? Would capitalism and militarism be significantly challenged? I’m skeptical because I believe that Obama’s ascent represents an elite experiment — a trial balloon — to determine how (we) the people respond to a minor concession (i.e. a black president). It would be naive to think it represented a real shift toward a new beginning for the United States. Based on the renewed excitement for Obama, it’s clear that the elite can rest-assured that we remain more complacent than outraged and that the strongest challenge to the status quo still comes from the right (and not the left) despite the fall/co-optation of the Tea Party.

The point is this: As a people we still refuse to control our own political destiny. This is in spite of, or perhaps because of, our over-privileged place in the world. This is the underlying contradiction of each election between Coke and Pepsi/Freddie Krueger and Jason/Evil One and Evil Two. We spend most of our days saying we’re better — that we don’t want empire or, at least, a benevolent empire if we’re going to have one — but in the end we vote for four more years of it, and we say very little about a new system, a new party, or a new revolution (1776 was a very long time ago!)

What will we do when this system comes crashing down under a tidal wave of debt, violence, and blind optimism? Vote for the other guy?


Week in Ankara

Ankara is not Istanbul — this is quite clear to anyone living in Turkey — but I don’t say this to disregard Ankara. I had a great time despite the stress of all the bureaucracy and time involved in applying for my residency permit (without it I’m here illegally and cannot get access to medical care or return to the country if I choose to leave for any reason).

I would be remiss without posting a shout-out to Captain Berk, Havva hocam, and everyone else who contributed for all of their hard work in making it a successful week. I felt a little guilty that I was able to slip out and spend some time with an amazing Turkish friend I met last year in Washington, D.C., who lives in Ankara, and her boyfriend, but it made the week a lot more manageable. There’s little that alcohol, food, and friends (not to mention friends with radical politics) can’t cure. I was reminded of my better moments in D.C. while in the Turkish capital.

But Ankara is much more beautiful than D.C. Western Anatolia has incredible scenery — which I enjoyed throughout the six-hour bus ride  that included more trials and tribulations than I would like to detail here (although long bus rides in Turkey include refreshments and on-board entertainment, so I can’t complain too much). It was good to be among friends as well.

I stayed at a dorm room on one of the lush campuses of Hacettepe University. It was very nice — with many places to eat and socialize — yet I couldn’t really meet anyone new — except one very friendly guy who helped me get into the student cafeteria and ended up paying for my lunch because I didn’t have exact change — because of the language barrier. Either not as many young people speak English as I have been told, or they just pretend they don’t because they don’t want to talk to me. I am thinking it’s the former because of the friendliness I have experienced (and documented) thus far.

Ankara does have a downtown scene despite what I had been told. I would have liked to have spent more time in it, but there is always next time. It would likely appeal to a quieter, likely older crowd than Taksim Square in Istanbul. Also unlike Istanbul the city as a whole is very modern (with some very interesting exceptions, such as the Citadel — pictured second to the bottom below). It was unfortunate that I did not have time for any museums, which Ankara is known for, except the famous Independence Museum and Ataturk’s mausoleum, which was certainly fit for a hero. It was no small event to stand at the grave-site of such an individual, who remains hard for me to grasp because he has no modern equivalent in the United States. This is a subject I will have to return to after further study.

Perhaps the strangest moment for me was when two young girls tried to solicit me and my friends by talking like robotic tour guides — if robotic tour guides had a five-word English vocabulary. The same night I was also called a ‘yankee’ by a Turkish man who helped us find the Metro. I will let that one go because I use the term myself in order to distinguish those from the States and those from broader America (yes, there is a broader America, s0-called Americans!)

I will have to plan a future trip to see the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations and, perhaps, the outlying Phrygian ruins, where King Midas was allegedly buried.

Check Me Out on Turkish TV!