5/2/08

A tree in the Flintstones




When I was a kid I found that the most wonderful thing about cartoons were the backdrops. When I saw the stars and floating towers in the Jetsons, the urban skyline in Spiderman, or the coral reefs and underwater mountains in Aquaman, I felt a melancholy longing for that inaccessible distance that these timeless, suspended figments of the imagination seemed to represent. They were simple, unimportant things that were probably mere afterthoughts in the composition of the cartoons, little more than fillers; but to me they were the manifestations of whole other worlds. Every star, every undersea mountain, every building in the passing skyline represented a new and undiscovered universe of possibility and adventure, noble and removed from the mundane world of phenomena that was acted out before it.

Among all those animated images, I remember one in particular that was especially captivating: that of a tree in the background of an episode of The Flintstones. When I say remember I mean rather that I blurrily recollect the image, as it's long since been jumbled in amid a nebulous pre-adolescent mnemonic tangle of impressions that were once so familiar and dear to me. Today these seem like the memories of another person. And I guess you could argue that they did belong to a different person; but at least a part of that person has lived on in some umbral corner of my mind, and the tree - or at least the meaning of the tree - has too, in that same residual little corner.

I can't remember the exact episode now, of course, nor what happens or what dialogue takes place around, in front, before or after the tree. Was Fred Flintstone driving his caveman car all alone or was Barnie Rubble by his side? Were Wilma and Betty riding in the back? I don't know exactly. But I remember the tree - actually there were a few trees... and the mountains, the clouds... and of course Fred Flintstone riding by in the foreground. But I didn't really care for the foreground. That's where people talked and things happened - minor, unimportant, quotidian things. Fred tries to get Barnie a meeting with the Grand Poobah; Betty gets a new pet dinosaur that doubles as a vacuum cleaner; Wilma wants to give Fred a birthday gift of a month's supply of brontosaurus burgers... the usual everyday stuff. But why did that insignificant little tree frozen and still far away in the background hold such an allure while those animated fictitious lives were lived out before it?

Maybe it's best to first ask a completely different question: Where do imagination and reality overlap? When and how does a figment of one's mind become real? Is it when it's shared by other minds? Is it, in this case, when an image becomes a shared impression and experience that is reproduced and replicated in the mind of each and every beholder through a mass medium that penetrates and shapes a collective conscious? So what then is that tree and what does it become?

First of all, it's not a tree but a representation. The representation itself is a molecular agglomeration of ink, paint, lead, paper, chemicals, celluloid and light applied and manipulated by various agents and further modified through machines before being reproduced onto film and projected out into the world of phenomena. They all come together in a way that creates the form and outline of a tree, and then that too merges with other forms which, through the application of electricity and mechanical technology, eventually comprise a steady stream of photons that convey the form of a consistent sequence of images I see on the screen and which I recognize as The Flintstones. And so you have the fruits produced from the sense impressions in the creator's mind transformed into a solid thing; tenuous pieces of imagination transformed into tangible reality.

But all of that has only to do with the creation of the image. What makes the imaginary real - what makes it come alive - is the moment when a personal and emotional connection arises between the image and the beholder, regardless of the will or intentions of the creator. In my case, that moment was the instant in which I saw that tree in the backdrop and felt something that suddenly - instantly - transformed it into a real and necessary part of my lived sensory experience. It seemed to both stimulate and satisfy an emotional need. The two-dimensional representation came alive, and with its inception into the realm of (my) consciousness, it became internalized. The molecular hodgepodge of chemistry, mechanics and light was now something else, as if it had transcended itself and assumed a second nature. It seemed to have gained a soul. No longer was a tree merely represented, but the tree itself became a representation. In other words, the tree had transformed into a symbol. In my case it was a symbol of distance, separation, potentiality, possibility, removal, perhaps even distinction. It had become a symbol every bit as real as a word or a thing because it represented a relationship now between me and my world and it modified and shaped in its own small way the manner in which I understood and interacted with the world around me. You could say the symbol became an emotional conduit.

But what was the origin of that feeling? How could this representation be transformed into a symbol that could cause a powerful and moving reaction in me? How did a mere representational image assume a soul. This deserves an attempt at an explanation.

It seems to me that that which enchants us and is important to us often has its origins in a fundamental paradoxical feeling or urge within us: namely, that of a need for danger (change) and a need for security (inertia) at one and the same time. It's a binary feeling that causes us to experience attraction and repulsion, desire and horror, happiness and hopelessness, simultaneously. That feeling continues later on in life, when we're caught between the need for having a secure job and the desire to break away and rebel, between the need to have a steady life companion and the desire for amorous promiscuity... basically, between the need for comfort and the drive for adventure. But in the child's life this binary paradox - something I'll tentatively refer to as "motive angst" - is too powerful to be dealt with or suppressed. It overwhelms the young mind with the promise of great, beautiful, incredible things that life holds in store for us, but it also leaves the child suffused with the fear and terror of knowing that the satisfaction of that desire for being a part of the world out there would necessitate one's leaving the warm tender bosom of security, comfort and protection that envelops a young life and that is (at least in my case) all that one has known until then. The tree was like the manifestation of that motive angst as it became the symbolic representation of that clash of desires within me. It was out there in the large imaginational universe, yet it was safe somehow.

But why was I drawn to the tree - the backdrop - and not to the foreground, not to the world of life and the living? Why was I drawn to the frozen, still, and distant, and not to the world of action, interaction and proximity? For me the tree was not just distant, it was removed, and it was perfectly unreachable. Whatever happened in the foreground, whatever happened in the world in which things happen, the world of phenomena, the tree was not a part of it. It was solid, distant, apart, estranged, and it seemed secure in all those qualities. I wanted to be all those things. I wanted to escape. I identified with the tree. It touched me, it affected me, it made me feel something strongly, and it seduced me, because the tree was still out there, it was out there in the enormous expanse of that strange universe beyond me, but at the same time it was certain in its individuality, solid in its removal, peaceful in its separateness. It was in the world without being in the world.

It's only much later in life that the significance of the tree is realized in retrospect. You look back and weigh your life and wonder about how things turned out. You confront your mistakes and your regrets, the things that made you proud and the things that brought you shame and dread. And you see that there is a strange balance between these things and how they were acted out in your particular timeline. You realize that that binary urge to do and not-do was adjusted early at a particular setting, along a particular frequency, and that all your subsequent actions and inactions were formed according to that archetypal scheme that became solidified in those formative years when your tender unconscious mind was prone to the simplest representations and impressions - all seemingly so innocuous, but at the same time so intense, so passionate, so powerful that it set its own backdrop to an entire life. It wasn't until I thought about how much I had thought about that tree, about how that tree had somehow playfully assumed a place in a corner of my unconscious mind, that I realized how far back my own removal had begun.

I yearned for the tree. There's something within all of us that wants the tree. There are so many representations that motive angst has inspired: fantasy worlds where danger and adventure lurk around every corner, yet in which there seems to be a kind of manifest security implicit in a narrative guarantee that needs to tell and finish a story and which ultimately lends the characters a false blanket of invulnerability. It all seems pleasurable, but I realize now that it's only pleasurable in the way that satisfying a need is pleasurable. It's a negative pleasure, like scratching an itch. The tree was also pleasurable, but it was false. We all want to be apart, we sometimes fantasize about it, and it's pleasant. We become addicted to the images and phenomena that seem to represent and symbolize this. But eventually you realize that that which is represented can never be achieved or realized. It's real as an eminence, but it's hollow as substance. The tree was not noble or beautiful; it was craven, alienated and estranged.

You do not become the tree. You do not see those mountains, nor do you you ever go to those stars. You do not find the magic door that leads you to a fantasy world. You live in the world, you live among people, you share their lives, you sometimes do well, you sometimes do badly, you are sometimes loved and you are sometimes not.

The tree stands in the backdrop, silent, still, and alone. We must learn to leave it be.

5/1/08

A series of syllogistic refutations of God




Here are a few arguments against God and five arguments against two arguments for God.

Left: God?

Syllogisms are essentially word games that prey on the use of absolutes that are rife throughout language. If x is y and y is z then x is z. This is of course not a solid basis for truth, it's just a play on ambiguous words - most importantly, in this case, the word "God". Concepts like "perfection", "good", "evil" etc. are too vague to use as premises for sound logical arguments. We inevitably make the necessary mistake of using absolutes when we make the mistake of wanting to find and extract value judgments from life for the sake of formulating an ethical code to live by, and/or a metaphysical justification for living in the first place. But life seems oblivious to such endeavors, and so language falls short of being able to logically substantiate our search for Goodness, Justice, Perfection, and - ultimately - God. After all, these are things we seek and need precisely because we find them to be lacking in life. We may put our faith in the charms and spells and magic tricks of language, but when all is said and done, words remain hollow and any further inspection reveals chronic semantic maladies.

The following are not meant to convey any truth statement, they are only meant to reveal these semantic loopholes that are part and parcel of language, demonstrating that language - our only tool for understanding the world - is a poor tool for doing so, especially when it comes to metaphysical concepts that signify absolutes. Every word is signified in relation to all other words, and so a "tree" is necessarily defined by all that is "not tree", so that in a way, a thing is not just what it is, but is also all that it is not. And so God is all that is not-God and perfection all that is not-perfection. But this is a contradiction, as God cannot be un-Godly nor perfection imperfect. That contradiction is what lies at the root of language's deception, and what makes any attempt at finding Truth impossible by - and through - definition.

For more on this subject, you can read a long tedious Treatise on God as a Semantic Problem, although I would suggest you didn't because I'm starting to suspect that life is too short to care about this shit.

Why is God illogical?
If God is omnipotent and can do anything, then God can die, in which case God is not immortal, and therefore not God. But if God were immortal as God should be, then that would mean that God cannot die, which would mean that God cannot do everything and therefore is not omnipotent, and so not God. Thus, the existence of God is illogical, because God cannot be both omnipotent and immortal, which is ludicrous because God must be both. But if the universe is founded upon logic (and it must be, otherwise the whole foundation of knowledge and science would crumble) and God created logic, then God created the means by which to prove it does not exist! That would mean either God's logic is faulty - which is impossible, because God must be faultless and perfect - or that God is trying to prove to us he is illogical, in which case his proof has no value, because there can be no concept of "proof" outside of the axioms of logic. After all, if there is no logic, then it's just as valid to say 2+2=5 or that a jar of vaseline is a pigeon, or indeed that God = nothing. Therefore, God cannot exist.

Why create?
Humankind conceives of Unity (wholeness, oneness, indivisibility) as the ultimate perfection, the root of happiness, joy and well-being. In contrast, Division and Difference is the ultimate evil, the root of sin, war, and misery, generally signifying an estrangement from God. If Unity is perfection, and God is the epitome of perfection, then God is also the epitome of Unity. So then why would a God that is synonymous with perfection and Unity create anything at all, thereby altering the primordial Oneness, since the act of creation obliterates Unity by establishing a dichotomous relationship in the universe between creator and created?

Why test?
Let's say that the answer to the first question is: "God creates humans to test them, to see if they will find faith in God and redeem themselves, thus deserving reward (in Heaven), or to see whether they will prove unworthy of God, thus deserving punishment from God (in Hell)."

Perfection must be good, and God - as the epitome of perfection - also must be good. So God could not knowingly wish evil or harm on his creation. If God is also all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient), it is in God's power to ensure that his creation will not sin and will never be unhappy. So then why would God create a situation in which his creation - which itself springs from the Goodness, Perfection, Grace, and Magnanimity of God - can potentially be shunned, reviled, forsaken, punished and eternally damned by that same good God that created them? After all, God cannot be malicious. Let's say the answer to this is that God is not malicious, but has given humans all the faculties they need to make the correct choices and to follow God's path so as to deserve reward. But then the question is this: if God is all-seeing, and God is all-knowing, and God has created humankind, then God also knows exactly what choices and decisions humankind - and indeed each and every human - will take. So if God already knows what choices humans will make, then why would he give any choices to humans in the first place? Giving humans these choices means either a) God does not himself know what decision they will take, and wants to wait and see and punish or reward accordingly - which means God is not in fact all-knowing, and is thus not God, or b) God puts his creation through a series of trials even though he already knows whether they will succeed or fail, yet puts them through it anyway regardless, and then punishes them for those decisions they could not help but take, even though God was the one who created them and determined their fate for them in the first place - all of which means that God is malicious. But God can be neither ignorant, nor malicious. So then why - and what - does God test? Isn't the fact that God has to test his creation a sign that God is unsure about his creation, and thus not perfect, and therefore not God?

If God has preordained our fate, how can he reward or punish our decisions?
If God has created us and everything else in the universe, along with all the "laws" of the universe, God must know how everything can and will interact, take place, and occur in any and all possible situations. God therefore knows every decision you will make in your lifetime, and everything that will happen. So if God already knows all the choices you will make, good and bad, how can God punish or reward you for simply acting on your own nature which has been determined and created by God himself?

If there is Good and Bad, why is the universe not only Good?
Isn't the fact that we perceive Good and Bad a reason to create and believe in the concept of a God that is Good? After all, how could a God that is Good create anything that is Bad? This would mean that there is Bad in the nature of God, and thus that God is not a Good God, nor a perfect God, and therefore not God.

Accepting that the universe is one of Good and Bad, why are God's morals inferior to secular morals?
Which person's good action is more worthy: the one who does something good for others for a reward or to avoid punishment, or somebody who does something good for others for no such reason, but only does good because it makes them feel good? This is the same case with God's morals. Would you consider more worthy a religious person with faith in God who did a good deed knowing they would receive the reward of eternal bliss in heaven while avoiding a miserable torment in hell, or would you consider more virtuous an atheist who did a good deed knowing that they would get neither any such grand reward as heavenly salvation nor fear any such great torture as damnation in hell?

Why does God need to convince his creation of his existence?
If God has created the universe, then should not God's existence be manifest within his creation? Should not God's creation - all of which springs from and thus is God - be the proof of his existence? And yet God's ultimate creation - humankind - experiences doubt which must be corrected by God sending down his word through angels, prophets and holy books. This seems a primitive and clumsy kind of method for a power that is believed to have created something as complex as the atom or the eukaryotic cell. If humankind is part of a perfect creation from a perfect being - God - then why the doubt? And if God is the perfect creator of a perfect universe, then why the need to convince his creation of his existence? How can that which has created ask his creation to believe in its creator?

Why does God not convey the technical complexity of his creation in his holy books to persuade his creation that he exists?
If God has created everything that science has discovered, then why would God not mention atoms, molecules, mitochondria, quarks, gravity, the nature of light, and all the secrets of biology, chemistry and physics to his creation through his holy books? Would this not have been more persuasive than stories of magic and miracles that science proves are impossible? Let's assume that that is precisely what God wants: for humans to believe that the impossible is possible. But how could anything be impossible if God could create the universe as he sees fit? Therefore, if nothing is impossible, then why should God fool around with trite magic tricks and illusions like turning water into wine or turning canes into snakes when he could do anything at all? If convincing his creation of his existence is so important for him, why not just make an appearance and say so, instead of using men as prophets that only some people believe and others don't, or conducting miracles he never repeats when people ask him to as proof of his existence?

If God is eternal, and God at some point created the universe and people, why was there no universe or people before?
Why did God think that there being no creation was good enough before, but decided that it would be better with creation later? If a state of creator/created is better, how could what was before be less than perfect? If God is perfection, how can God have existed in a less than perfect state that lacked a creation? And if God is perfect, how can God change his mind as to how he'd like everything to be?

Why does God expect so much from us without living up to his end of the bargain?
If you're going to be punished with an eternity in Hell where demons and fire torture you forever because of your lack of belief in God, then shouldn't God try harder to make belief in him easier by making his existence more obvious? Conversely, if God is going to reward you for an irrational belief in his supposed existence despite his not having made his existence at all clear, then should we also reward people who believe in other irrational, unfalsifiable and unsubstantiated things? Should someone who believes that the universe exists in the belly of a giant pink unicorn with pigtails be rewarded or praised for having faith in something that is irrational and unfalsifiable? And if so, then why did God give us senses if he expects us to believe things that contradict those senses?

If my body dies and my soul is immaterial, then how can I burn in Hell?
Without any physical existence, without nerves, skin, senses, and a brain, why would fire hurt me at all? How could it burn me? And let's say I went to Heaven. How could I take any enjoyment in drinking from rivers of milk or honey or enjoying the company of virgins or saints if I am immaterial? I have no senses, no touch, sight, smell, taste, hearing... I have no mouth or vocal chords with which to touch... and I have no brain with which to think and formulate ideas... Doesn't that mean that Hell and Heaven are empty threats and empty promises respectively?

If God sent down prophets and holy books, why was one prophet or holy book not enough?
Surely if God can't persuade humankind of his existence through a single prophet or holy book (which, as previously stated, is already problematic), then God is less than perfect (if not a bumbler) for using one prophet or book after the other to try and convince humankind of his existence. Furthermore, why were his holy books sent to some and not to others? And why have humans felt the need to spread God's word through violence if God could and should easily have convinced humans without need for such misery, destruction and death, all of which are evils that God's universe should be free of?

How can we laugh?
If all has been created by and from the one eternal, indivisible God, then all must carry the nature of God. All that exists must be part of God, since nothing that exists can exist without its having been created by and from God. If this is the case, then how can we laugh at anything knowing that that thing is God? By laughing at any one thing, we are laughing at God himself. But can we mock perfection? Can we find ridiculous, illogical, weird or comical, the majesty, power and awe of God?

Why faith and not fact?
If one must have faith in the existence of God, one must want and wish God into existence. In other words, one must believe God to exist. But if, as religious people and believers of God say, God's existence is manifest all around us, then why do we need to further believe it? If one is aware of the fact of the sun's existence without necessarily needing to further believe it's existence, or have faith in its existence, then how can something infinitely more precious than the sun - viz. God - not also be a fact that does not need further qualification through faith or belief?

How can my mind be imperfect?
If all is God, then my mind is also God, or at least created by God. But if my mind cannot perceive God nor believe God to exist, then is God's creation imperfect not to be able to conceive and be conscious of its very own nature? If God's creation is imperfect, how can it be God's creation since God must necessarily be perfect?

If the overwhelming majority of people need to believe in God's existence, doesn't this mean that the world we perceive seems Godless?
If I feel the need to believe something I can't see, is this not a sign that what I do see seems lacking of what I'd like to see? Does this then not mean that I need to believe in God's mercy, goodness, immortality, grace and perfection precisely because I see a world around me that is merciless, evil, ugly, mortal and imperfect?

Why didn't prophets have cool superpowers?
If you wanted to convince humankind of your existence, wouldn't you want some ass kicking Kung-Fu prophets with wings who could shoot fire from their fingertips? I bet if the Chinese had prophets that's the sort of prophets they'd have had.

Why doesn't God just pick one brand design and go with it?
Wouldn't it be better if God could just pick a language, pick one book, one prophet, one creed, one style of temple, etc. and just go with that? If all the different religions believe that theirs is the right language/book/prophet/creed etc. then why aren't they suspicious that there are billions of others who believe the exact same thing even though their language/book/prophet/creed etc. is totally different? How can humans not see projected on to God the same discord, bickering and difference that plagues the profane human world? Why do all these people believe blindly in their own truth when reason seems to suggest that God is in fact a human creation rather than vice versa?

If God is the embodiment and source of reason, logic and rationality, then why is belief in God fundamentally irrational?
If the human mind has been created to be aware of the reason, rationality and logic of God, then why must we believe and have faith in God's existence in an irrational way? After all, to believe the existence of something we cannot see is irrational. And yet even though God is the source of reason, we are expected instead to believe in things that seem unreasonable.

If God's omnipotence can be logically questioned, then can God be omnipotent?
If God's omnipotence can be logically questioned, then it means there is a fundamental weakness that is inherent in it. Since omnipotence could not have a weakness, then God cannot be omnipotent.

What if God created the world and man with different laws than those that apply to him, so that man cannot judge God by his own laws of causality, logic and science, and so this whole syllogistic dissertation is pointless?
First of all, every religion is founded on the basis that man/the world/the universe was created in God's own image. After all, how can the origin of everything be different from its creator? But once again we're judging God by our own laws and epistemological precepts. So, if we were to go along with the hypothetical question posed here, we would probably have to say that if God created us with a different set of laws, then we ourselves cannot judge God by the same laws that apply to us - that is, our laws of causation, logic and science. That means that - for all practical purposes - he cannot be our God, but the God of another universe. If God lives by different laws, then God cannot understand the human condition, our sufferings, our trials, our joys, our sorrows, our accomplishments, our deeds, our morals, and - most importantly - our minds. Yet this is precisely what we need God for. So if God cannot afford us that understanding because he lives by different laws, then - whether he exists or not - why should we care for a God with whom we don't share a common understanding? God becomes irrelevant. But if you argue that the creator must understand the laws of his creation since he is the source of those laws, then it stands to reason that the creator does also live by and understand those laws, and is thus not only subject to logical inquiry, but accountable to it.

If God is everything and all around us, can things have a dual nature?
Can something be both tree and God, monkey and God, vaseline and God? Can Jesus be human and God? If God existed before all else and existence itself is born of God, then that which exists can only be that which is God, since God can't create something out of anything but himself, because that would mean there is an origin to things - at least some things - which was not created by God, which in itself would mean God is no longer God. So can things be anything other than God?

Why do believers in God show anger and try to stamp out, punish and violently attack non-believers if they are secure in their belief that God exists and is on their side?
If God almighty is on your side, why do you have to take aggressive and often murderous action against apostates and non-believers? After all, if God is the repository, guardian and source of universal justice then surely he will take the necessary action either in this life (lightning strike? earthquake? mud slide?) without needing you to jump in and club and stone and scream at people. The fact that you feel the need to take aggressive action instead of trusting in the ways of the almighty suggests either that, a) you don't have true faith in the almighty, and deep down are insecure about whether what you believe really isn't all just clap trap, or b) that you think you are more competent than God at meting out justice, meaning that you think you are better and more righteous than God, which of course means that there is no God because nothing could be better or more righteous than God.

Refutations of Assertations 1 - The Ontological Argument
The argument runs: God is perfect, existence must be more perfect than non-existence, therefore God must exist.
Contradiction 1: To know what perfection is one must know what imperfection is. If immortality is perfection, then mortality must be imperfection. Thus, one must know bad to know good, and one must know non-existence to know existence. If God is perfect and God created the universe, then the universe must also be perfect. But we cannot know this without knowing the imperfect: hence the existence of death, suffering, misery, poverty, all of which is imperfect. But how can this be possible if God is perfect? How can a perfect being create imperfection if all is created from that perfect being? Since all springs from God, then imperfection must also spring from God, otherwise there must be another source of existence besides God, which cannot be. This means that either a) God is not perfect, and is therefore not God, and therefore does not exist, or b) perfection does not exist, and therefore neither does God, since God must be perfect.
Contradiction 2: There can be no gradations to perfection, it is absolute. Something is either perfect or it isn't, since just one blemish makes something imperfect. Therefore one state of being cannot be "more perfect" than another. So the ontological argument basically says: existence is perfect, God is also perfect, therefore God exists. But we cannot know what is perfect without knowing what is imperfect. I cannot know that immortality is perfect if I have no concept of death - which I do in fact perceive very clearly in the world. Therefore, if imperfection exists in the world, perfection is impossible. If God is supposed to be perfect, then God is also impossible, since God cannot create an imperfect world because God can have no imperfection in its nature from which imperfection can arise.
Contradiction 3: The proposition is founded upon the premise "God is Perfect", which already takes for granted God's existence and purported properties (viz. perfection), so unless you already believe that God exists, you cannot believe - and in this case "prove" - that God exists.

Refutations of Assertations 2 - Pascal's Wager
The wager is such: We have nothing to lose from believing in God and everything to gain, therefore we should believe in God.
Contradiction 1: The premise that holds this argument together is that "we have nothing to lose from belief in God and everything to gain". But if this argument is being used to justify belief in God, then it must come before we accept that belief since it is trying to justify such belief in the first place. So then at this stage it's just as valid to say "we have nothing to lose from not believing in God, nor anything to gain". After all, God is not yet justified by the argument because it is prior to its conclusion, and so God does not yet exist, and if God does not yet exist, then what have you to lose from not believing in God any more than you have to gain from believing in him? In short, the premise of this argument is already a judgment and a conclusion, which leads to Contradiction 2...
Contradiction 2: According to this wager proposition, you must already believe in God or have an idea of the concept of God to establish the premise that will supposedly justify the existence of God in the overall proposition, since you cannot actually know if "we have nothing to lose from believing in God and everything to gain" without first believing that God is of a certain nature (i.e. Good, and thus good for us, etc.). So really this entire proposition is just circular logic, because the premise relies on the proposition, which in turn relies on the premise, and so on.
Contradiction 3: By believing in God you may gain heaven, but you may also end up in hell. But by not believing in God you will forsake heaven but you will also save yourself from hell. That means that belief in God is riskier, and disbelief safer, but neither one is more advantageous for you. If you give heaven one point, hell -1 point and a state of neither 0 points, then the believer's chances and the non-believer's chances all even out to 0. If anything it might be better to believe that you're at least not going to hell regardless of whether you're going to heaven or not.

Conspiratic theorems



We Turks understand the world through conspiracies. Here are some incontrovertible factoids* behind the Truth.

What do the Izmit earthquake, the PKK, our foreign debt, South Park, Eastern European prostitutes, yoga and Charles Darwin have in common? You guessed it, they’re all part of a secret plot masterminded by a cabalistic network of freemasons, Christians, Jews, the CIA, MOSSAD, Hollywood and the European Union to weaken and destroy Turkey. How do we know this? Well what else could explain why we’re not the gleaming superpower nation ruling the entire universe? It’s obviously a conspiracy to hold us back. Any unemployed schmuck in a coffeehouse – or leader of a major Turkish political party – could tell you that. The only thing holding us back is not our own incompetence but the exceptional competence of everybody else.

I know, I know, your puny little brain is thinking ‘whoa, is that true?’. Well why don’t you true this: ever heard of H.A.A.R.P.? Yes, that’s the High-frequency Active Aural Research Program in Alaska that ostensibly ‘studies’ ionospheric physics and radio science. Know what it really does? It creates earthquakes, storms, hurricanes, floods and mudslides to hit America’s enemies and rivals with.

1999 Izmit. Massive quake. 30,000 Turks dead. Coincidence?

Now you’re going, ‘wait a second, Izmit’s bang on the North Anatolian Fault, earthquakes are bound to happen.’ But do they just happen to happen on 17 August, 1999? That’s 17-8-99. 17 + 8 = 25, which, when subtracted from 99, gives you 74. Add to that the day the earthquake happened (17) and you get 1774. Ring any bells? Yep, that’s the year the American War of Independence began and – surprise surprise – the year Turkey lost a war to Russia and signed the treaty of Kuchuk Kainardja, which granted Russia the right to intervene in Turkey thenceforth for the sake of ‘defending’ CHRISTIANS in Turkey. Coincidence? Coincidence this: George Washington was a freemason and Catherine the Great was an avid supporter of freemasonry, her court having been full of freemasons. And so on that cryptically symbolic day in 17-8-99 we just happen to have 30,000 MUSLIMS mysteriously die by a ‘force of nature’ that hits Turkey’s industrial heartland… how convenient. But the plot runs even deeper. Subtract 8 from 17 and you get 9, which – when you add the year of the earthquake (99) – gives you 999. Now turn the page upside down (much like an earthquake can turn your world upside down). Bam: 666. Number of the beast. Conclusion? Earthquake = Masonic-Satanic plot.

Ok, that makes sense, but what about the other stuff? Is the 30-year PKK insurgency just a coincidence? Is it just a coincidence that there happened to be 26 Kurdish uprisings against the Turkish state in the last 85 years? Why would the Kurds just rebel like that when they had been granted full rights as mountain Turks in Turkey, free to renounce their language, culture and identity as Kurds and be given the honor of becoming Turks? Why be ungrateful? Here’s why: the Europeans have been brainwashing them into being Kurds. Yoga? A plot masterminded by decadent bohemians to weaken our Muslim faith. Eastern European prostitutes? Sent to dissolve our family values. South Park? Aired to promote rampant degeneracy. The foreign debt? To keep us broke. Charles Darwin? To turn us all into atheists. Bam. Factoids. MOSSAD funds the PKK and trains Armenians as crypto-Kurd fighters; the CIA and its ideological arms like Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc. announce fake fossil and genetic discoveries to disprove divine creation; freemasons promote liberal ideas like ‘human rights’ through their local puppet NGOs in Turkey’s rampantly burgeoning civil society; the French are using the Armenian so-called "so-called" genocide to carve Turkey up… and before you know it, Turkey’s being fed to the jackals.

Sure, some fruit cakes might say that conspiracy theories are the pseudoscience of the mentally lazy; the ressentiment of the ignorant; an attempt at empowerment by the impotent; a seeking to cover up one’s own shortcomings and failures by devolving the blame to fictitious outside powers who supposedly have it in for us due to their jealousy of our power and perfection; a desperate grasp at self-worth on the part of pathological sufferers of inferiority complexes; an effort to find some kind of solidity for one’s own flimsy and outdated national, religious and metaphysical myths by flimsifying the foundations of solid scientifically-established ideas; a need to whitewash our crimes and deny our weaknesses by vilifying others through xenophobic propaganda that both feeds and feeds off an ignorant populace as it both sows and reaps the seeds of its own memetic reproduction; a desire to explain the existence of any worldview different from one’s own as only being possible as a result of coercion and obfuscation; perhaps even a pathetic yet innocent longing for mystery and romance in an age of cold boring scientific rigor which you have no grasp on and are in no way a part of because you have no education and don’t understand complicated scientific concepts like ‘natural selection’ or, say, ‘evidence’.

But that’s all horseshit, because what you call conspiracy ‘theories’ must be true, since you can’t prove them wrong. They are UNFALSIFIABLE. That sounds a lot like INDESTRUCTIBLE, and indestructible sounds a lot like AWESOME. All you have to do to prove something is true is to prove just one measly instance of its truth. But what you have to do to prove something is false is prove every single instance of its un-truth. That’s much tougher to do. In fact, it’s impossible, because then you’d have to be able to know everything at once - such as, for example, whether or not a secret meeting occurred, which you couldn't possibly know because it's secret. So to know whether or not a conspiracy isn't afoot, you’d basically have to be omniscient. In other words, you’d have to be God. Are you God? Didn’t think so. Bam. Conspiracy theory just became unfalsifiable conspiracy FACTOID. You can put that in an oven and bake it.

Oh by the way, Bigfoot pilots UFOs over the Nevada desert, the Loch Ness monster masterminded 9/11 by tattooing a map of the World Trade Center on its back with the ink-dipped tip of a unicorn’s horn, and Cuba is communist because the puppet-masters in America want it to be communist for some strange reason nobody’s figured out yet. Or maybe they just fucked that one up?

* ‘Factoid’ is of course Latin for ‘huge fact’

4/4/08

Turkey: Bridge to the Melting Pot at a Crossroads



...And Still Not in the EU, Not Even Close

(written for Strangeland magazine)

A celebrated inspiration for some of the world's most precious cliches, Istanbul is renowned as the place where East meets West meets Europe meets Asia meets Muslim meets Christian meets kebab meets burger meets miniskirt meets headscarf meets some other portentous symbol diametrically opposed to some other semiotic exaggeration to create yet another banally juxtaposed, superficially thought-provoking, unity-through-contradiction catchphrase.

It’s all very daedal as chewing gum for tour guides soothing nervous visitors and baling twine for hung-over travel writers on deadline. But those same clichés become comic in their inaccuracy and grotesque in their whitewashing of reality after an extended stay in this “Meeting Point of Civilizations.” That’s how the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism would like everyone to think of the country. We Turks are very eager to erase any Midnight Express associations lingering in the minds of foreigners. Just click or surf over to CNN or BBC to drink in commercials that portray Turkey as the epitome of tolerance, concord, and diversity. You’ll see handsome moustached dervishes and sloe-eyed beauty queens spinning and floating, respectively, across Istanbul’s famous dome-and-minaret-crowded skyline, lush images filigreed with sensually spiritual quotes from our famous Sufi poets. The message: we have cool old stuff that you can’t find anywhere else and our own version of the cool new stuff. The subtext: please don’t be scared to visit, Mr. and Mrs. Hard Currency.

Turkey presents itself as the planet’s only democratic secular Muslim country, aggressively tilted to the West by our revered national hero Kemal Atatürk after the dissolution of the sumptuous silken dreamscape that was the Ottoman Empire. We’ve done away with our autocratic sultans and toothless caliphate, but we’ve retained the bejeweled palaces and the mournful call of the muezzin. We’ve managed this trick for more than eighty years thanks to state restrictions on religion applied under the vigilant watch of a military always ready to step in and run the show (three coups, in 1960, 1971, and 1980) when the civvies are deemed inadequate to the task of keeping the Islamic genie stopped up tight in the mosques.

So don’t confuse our secular boasting with U.S.- style separation of church and state. There’s a Religious Affairs Directorate originally established by Atatürk to remove what were deemed to be unseemly non-modern displays of religion from public life. The long-standing prohibition on women wearing headscarves in public schools and government buildings is the most notorious, controversial, and widespread example of this policy. Same as in the West, the idea was that our religion be heard (your tolling church bells to our quavering sing-song of God-is-great five times a day) but not seen. It’s basically the French model and it has a fancy French name: Laïcité, which turns out to be as hard to spell as it is to apply. The state is required to safeguard religious freedom but also charged with actively preventing religion from taking a conspicuous part in public life and government... which necessarily requires a curtailing of religious freedom. That would be fine except for the small demographic detail that, unlike in laique France, 99% of us Turks are Muslim, and most of us identify ourselves as such when asked, as our censuses often do.

Secularism? Yes, God willing!

So freedom of religion? Sort of... And as for secular, well, the current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is still seen as an Islamist party in all but name. It came to power in 2007 campaigning hard on the promise to overturn the headscarf ban. They haven’t quite managed it, but they adamantly defend compulsory religion classes (a.k.a. “How to be a good Sunni Muslim”) in all public schools. There’s a prohibition on the consumption of alcohol in all government-run social facilities in AKP-administered municipalities, and talk of rusticating all alcohol-serving establishments to “Red Zones” on the outskirts of towns and cities.

This hasn’t yet stopped most Turks from enjoying the national tipple, raki, or the ubiquitous Efes beer. But vigilantism is on the rise. It’s most often seen in the form of passive-aggressive “neighborhood pressure (mahalle baskisi),” whereby those who are deemed to have an un-virtuous (read un-Islamic) lifestyle (i.e. alcohol drinkers, girls who don’t cover their heads, girls with boyfriends, etc.) are bullied and harassed by a network of housewives, shopkeepers, and municipal officials who use gossip, rumors, and dirty glances to ostracize “undesirables.” Foreign journalists miss this phenomenon because it’s subtle and very local. But the pressure can also take extreme and violent forms, viz. the (Alevi) shopkeeper who was beaten to a pulp last year by (Sunni) municipal patrolmen for selling alcohol after the prescribed hours, or the mob that attacked and beat a couple flirting on a public bench. Both incidents occurred in suburbs of Ankara controlled by the AKP, in one of which there is a giant billboard that proclaims “Alcohol is the Mother of all Evil.”

The AKP portrays its political agenda as reforms meant to “expand freedoms,” primarily the freedom for women to wear headscarves in universities and government buildings, which to non-religious Turks like me sounds a lot like the “freedom” for women to be considered first and foremost as sex objects who must hide their alluring bits so as not to incite impure thoughts and acts in men. Then there is the “freedom” to teach creationism in public schools, something that the former Minister of Education, Hüseyin Çelik, defended adding to the official curriculum based on the argument that a majority of the Turkish population (75% according to polls) believe in it. That the majority’s belief in creationist fairy tales is due to a lack of education is a golden irony willfully lost on the learned grandees of the AKP. Their reforms include the banning of over a thousand internet websites by the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate, including YouTube, the website of atheist scientist/writer Richard Dawkins, and at one point Blogger and Wordpress. Add to that a government-imposed $2.5 billion (yes, billion) tax fine on Dogan Holding—the only media conglomerate that is still independent and critical of the AKP—and it appears that the government’s avowed commitment of democratization and pluralism is just talk.

So, sure, besides all the de facto meddling of politics in religion by secularists, and the mixing of religion in politics by Islamists, Turkey enjoys at least nominal separation of religion and government—in theory anyway... French theory. But wait! Have you checked out our whirling dervishes and beauty queens? How ‘bout them Sufis!

Tolerance for all. (Except maybe you over there)


The same sorta/kinda caveat applies to the endless official lip service promoting our tolerance for other faiths and ethnicities. OK, compared to post-Bush Iraq or medieval Europe or Darfur, Turkey might as well be Sweden. But tell that to the Catholic priest who was stabbed to death in Trabzon in 2006, or the three Christian missionaries whose throats were slit and bodies mutilated in Malatya in 2007. The 2009 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report placed Turkey on its Watch List, along with Afghanistan, Cuba, the Russian Federation, and Venezuela. Then there’s the sad case of the Armenian writer Hrant Dink, who was shot dead in the middle of a busy Istanbul street in 2007 after repeatedly doing what no good Turk must ever do—speaking and writing about the great Turkish bugbear known officially as “the alleged Armenian Genocide.” After his arrest, Dink’s assassin was treated as a hero and cops posed with him for souvenir snapshots as they proudly brandished the Turkish flag.

This is troubling, especially given Turkey’s long history of acting nasty toward religious and ethnic minorities, a history the state is constantly trying to sweep under the carpet with a whistle and a wink. There was the pogrom of Greeks and Armenians in September 1955 in Istanbul; we’re (sort of) allowed to talk about that one. The Alevi Muslims’ houses of worship (Cemevi) have never been officially recognized, despite Alevis (a sect closer to Shiites) representing 20% of the population. The Kurds, who represent anywhere between 15% and 25% of the population (depending who you ask: just don’t ask too often), have revolted violently against the Turkish state 26 times. They were prohibited from speaking their mother tongue and officially referred to as “mountain Turks” until the 90’s. And then there’s the gigantic taboo concerning any discussion of whatever happened to the million, maybe two million, Armenians who resided in Eastern Turkey 90 years ago, and who are now, well, conspicuously no longer there. Draw your own conclusions… but you better keep them to yourself if they contradict official state doctrine.

Even animals aren’t exempt from our peculiar version of tolerance. In 2007 various indigenous animal species with subversive names—like the red fox known as Vulpes vulpes kurdistanica, or the wild sheep called Ovis armeniana, or the roe deer known as Capreolus capreolus armenus—were deemed to be abetting treason and secession by their very existence. That has now been resolved by an official decree of the Turkish Environment Ministry which erased all that separatist Kurdish- and Armenian-inspired nomenclature. Now we have the more palatable Vulpes vulpes, Ovis orientalis anatolicus, and Capreolus cuprelus capreolus. It’s like taxonomy by Stalin. So except for those minor tears and a few gaping holes in our big inclusive tent, and the recurring news footage of Kurdish children throwing rocks at Turkish Army vehicles in scenes reminiscent of the West Bank Intifada, Turkey is somewhat tolerant and discernibly democratic... ish.

And so it must be if Turkey is ever to fulfill its dream of joining the European Union, which would be worth a thousand cheesy P.R. campaigns as far as Turkey reeling in deep-pocket tourists and a dragon’s horde of foreign investment. Geographically, Turkey is part of both Europe and Asia (Meeting Point! Meeting Point!), but we might as well be in the head-chopping, torture-house-condoning Middle East as far as the EU is concerned. Human rights guarantees, which unfortunately for Turkey also extend to religious and ethnic minorities, are embedded in the stringent EU standards that sprout from Brussels and now stretch from Iceland to the eastern border of Poland (beyond which lie the wild frontiers of Putinland, where huge energy reserves allow the commissars and oligarchs to play by their own rules—just ask the Chechens!). Since 1987, Turkey has been taking baby steps to comply with EU standards and many experts think it will take at least another twenty years, if ever. Not exactly the fast track, but a track nevertheless… a gravelly, pot-holed, tortuous track growing ever fainter until it finally disappears into the poor, scrubby Anatolian wilderness crawling with those swarthy, scowling Muslims that most Europeans today can’t imagine ever letting into their precious political play pen.

Baby steps: the Minister of Justice Mehmet Ali Sahin is the first Turkish minister ever to publicly apologize to the family of someone tortured to death in police custody. A generous gesture to be sure, but what about the families of Engin Ceber (tortured to death in police custody), Feyzullah Ete (beaten to death by police while sitting in a park) and the thousands of others who undergo torture and death at the hands of the law on a what can be presumed to be a regular basis? We Turks barely notice. And when we do, we shrug and roll our eyes. Compare this apathy to our feisty Greek neighbors. They raised high hell with Molotov cocktails and flaming barricades in 2008 after a teenage protester was killed by riot police. In Greece, the justice minister didn’t just apologize, he resigned.

Say what you like, as long as we like what you say

The problem is that some reforms can’t be achieved incrementally. For example, amending Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which for decades made “insulting Turkishness” a crime. Violations have led to cringe-inducing CNN-worthy prosecutions and unofficial persecutions of hundreds of writers, including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk (who now lives in New York due to death threats), award-winning author of The Bastard of Istanbul Elif Safak (who was heckled and spat at on her way to court), perennial Nobel long-shot Yasar Kemal, and the aforementioned, aforemurdered Armenian-Turkish writer Hrant Dink. Besides being a P.R. nightmare, Article 301 is seen as the greatest obstacle to achieving a legal framework acceptable to the EU. The muscles in Brussels wanted Turkey to scrap 301 altogether, but our parliament opted for a slight tweaking instead. Since 2008 the new law states that it’s a crime to insult “the Turkish nation,”, thus narrowing the “-ishness” of the original.

The result? Same old, same old. Just as Pamuk, Safak, and Dink were prosecuted under Article 301 for essentially using the words Armenian and genocide in the same sentence, since the amendment to Article 301 another writer—Ragip Zarakolu—was prosecuted for the same “crime.” You can still only say what you like as long as your opinions don’t run counter to the state-sanctioned view of things. Hard to take even baby steps when you’re saddled with such an overloaded dirty diaper. Or as the famous 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi, who composed in Persian but lived and died in what is now Turkey, put it: “Most people guard against going into the fire, and so end up in it.”

Maybe Article 301 will eventually commit suicide: the ridicule and disgrace that Turkey suffers for it’s prosecution of citizens under this embarrassing law might itself be considered a breach of Article 301’s own prohibition against insulting Turkey. By this logic, the Constitutional Court could rule that Article 301 actually violates itself and order it scrapped. Unfortunately, any lawyer who put forth this legal argument would risk being charged under the very article he or she is attempting to abolish.

And what about the role of the army in Turkey? I’m not really at liberty to say because of Article 314 of the Turkish penal code, which basically states that the Turkish Armed Forces are always and forever beyond reproach, critique, or even a suspect sidelong glance. So I’ll skip that subject altogether, so as to avoid the fate of, say, author and newspaper columnist Perihan Magden, who went to jail for criticizing compulsory military service in Turkey and “publishing propaganda aimed at dissuading people from fulfilling their sacred duty.” Or if you prefer your chilling effect on free speech with a bit more sparkle, cleavage, and eye-shadow, consider Turkey’s most famous transvestite, singer Bülent Ersoy. She was charged for the same “crime” after saying on live TV (as a judge on Turkey’s music reality show “Popstar Alaturka”) that if she could have a son she would not allow him to do his stretch in the army.

Even while recognizing our country’s shortcomings, it’s clear to us Turks that Europe doesn’t appreciate the buffer zone we represent between their cherished secular humanism and the shouting mullahs and incendiary shaheeds whose fondest desire is to blow the godless West to smithereens. The EU gate-keepers would do well to consider who might be knocking on their door a few years from now if the AKP agenda continues apace. Because contrary to propaganda spread by the government through it’s tourism campaigns and paid advertising “special reports” in the Economist and the International Herald Tribune, there is an intense struggle inside Turkey over which way we should be heading: West or East, towards Europe or away. The news-making polarization between Islamists and secularists reflects an even more profound socio-economic rift in Turkish society. A newly urbanized Islamic and conservative Anatolian bourgeoisie is increasingly challenging the Kemalist/secularist hold on power anchored in Istanbul and Ankara. Like everywhere else in the world, our poor masses like the stability and low-budget solace that religion provides, while our wealthy citizens prefer the freedoms and new sensations that only money can buy. The quotidian dichotomies can be shocking. There’s a Millionaire’s Fair in Istanbul where you can go yacht shopping. But not if you’re one of the hundreds of people waiting in a mile-long line to purchase government-subsidized coal to heat your home in winter. Western Turkey looks like a developed, industrialized, affluent country, while in the eastern provinces there are feudal landowners, endogamy, troglodytes, honor killings, and even a recently-discovered clan of quadrupeds who seem to have devolved back to knuckle-dragging through the Anatolian dust.

These extremes aren’t surprising when you consider that Turkey ranks among the top countries in Europe for billionaires, while at the same time being one of Europe’s poorest nations, consistently among GDP per capita bottom trawlers like Bulgaria and Romania. If anything, Turkey seems to be Mexicanizing rather than Europeanizing. The Western way of life feels exclusionary to many Turks; not just the EU’s snobbish sniffing at our old world ways, but the implications that globalization, gender equality, free markets, and secularism have for our strong traditions of family and community. By comparison, the Middle East’s culture seems comforting, inclusive, and non-threatening. Clannish isn’t a slur here. There are no velvet ropes at the mosques.

East or West, which is best?

But how to bridge the gap? The ulema (Muslim scholars) gripe about the degeneracy of our upper classes. The sunbed-orange, rhinoplastied rich chicks and their Rolex-wearing, iPhone-tapping consorts are too busy drinking twenty-dollar cocktails at seaside nightclubs to notice. The egalitarian (in terms of class, if not gender) and community-providing attraction of Islam has emerged as an alternative world view to the aggressive, winner-takes-all ethos associated with the West’s capitalism and free markets. Atatürk would not be pleased; his ideological descendants clearly are not—an alleged coup conspiracy was made public in March 2007 when Nokta, a large-circulation magazine, published the diary of the head of the Navy. There seems a tacit threat in Turkey’s persistent demand to join the EU—if you let us in our people will prosper and become immune to the siren call of jihad; leave us out and Sharia-ville here we come. Some wags claim the military tolerate the AKP’s Islamic agenda as a strategy to scare the EU into letting us swim in their pool (which further hinges on the enormous can of worms called Cyprus being resolved as well—good luck with that!)

So what kind of crossroads is this? The bridge more often resembles a giant dividing wall with Turks smashing their heads against it on either side. The melting pot has been left untended on the stove too long and is boiling over with conflict and animosity. And the “Crossroads” itself? Well, that might soon be deemed too Christian an expression and changed to “Crescentroads,” which would actually be a more apposite metaphor considering the Islamists are convinced they can follow their own parabolic path around modernity while eroding the secular state bit by bit. Our storied intersection of cultures has become an inner suction of xenophobic paranoia. This “Meeting Point of Civilizations” I supposedly live in has become a city of estranged elements, divided between haves and have-nots, between Muslims and non-Muslims, between pious orthodox Muslims and secular Muslims, between nationalists and traitors, between jingoistic anthem-chanters and nervous minorities who can’t forget history even if the government decrees amnesia. Surely a nation that aspires to be a bridge between cultures, faiths, and ideas must first build those bridges within. It should be more important to us Turks to convince ourselves that we’re a tolerant and secular mosaic than to try to persuade the rest of the world when there’s so much that contradicts the propaganda.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. This year Turkish state television launched a Kurdish-language channel, TRT 6. When Hrant Dink was murdered by ultranationalists two years ago, hundreds of thousands of Turks poured into the streets with placards that read “We are all Armenians” without getting tear-gassed and beaten by our infamously zealous riot police. The prime minister himself has described the gradual disappearance of Turkey’s minorities to be the product of a “fascistic attitude.” Author Nedim Gürsel, accused of insulting Islam in his novel Daughters of Allah, was recently acquitted by an Istanbul court. And most recently, the Turkish government has started the long-overdue process of finding a political solution to the Kurdish problem; the aim is to formulate a national strategy that would finally put an end to a bloody 25-year conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. It’s early days yet, but these are all promising steps in the right direction—which is to say, West.

Who knows, maybe someday we Turks might even begin to believe in our own clichés. Maybe we’ll even live up to them. Or to quote Rumi again for a kicker: “Appear as you are, Be as you appear.”


4/3/08

Ten reasons why Istanbul is great




Time to stop complaining and start focusing on all the good things that Istanbul has to offer.

All some people do is poo-poo Istanbul. Month after month, year after year, whining and ranting on and on about how this sucks and that sucks. Some of these chronic gripers are even given their very own magazine columns to go on and on about everything that doesn't suit their precious little standards of excellence. Nagging on and on and on and on and on and on. Nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag.

But there must be stuff that's good about Istanbul because lots of people live here, and not just people who don't have any choice because they were born here and have to deal with it because Sweden or New Zealand won't accept them, but also people who actually choose to live here. That means there are some good things in Istanbul. So this month let's focus our rant on all the positive things that this city has to offer, things that make you feel like there's no other place you'd rather be... except maybe the Bahamas (but that doesn't count, because the Bahamas must always seem like a better place to live than anywhere else).

1. Built-in bidets in toilets
Those ass-washing water pipes at the back of commodes are what everyone secretly loves the most about Istanbul... and probably wants to read about the least. So moving right along...

2. Nobody caring about money
If you go to the store and buy something and find that you're short of money, the shopkeepers often won't even care. They'll just give you what you need anyway and say that you can pay them later - which you always will, because it makes you sick to even consider not reciprocating such a nice attitude. Everyone wins because both shopkeeper and customer feel good about themselves for showing how honorable they are to each other. You could also try doing this in Europe (that was sarcasm).

3. No law and order
Whoa, how great is no laws?! Anyone can do anything anywhere anytime and usually get away with it. This is what we dream of as kids, and here in Istanbul those dreams come true. To test this: rent a jackhammer and a hard hat, light up a cigarette, go to the middle of any street, and start carving a big hole in the middle of the road while your friend diverts traffic. I bet you could totally do it.

4. No libraries
That's right, here there's none of those big obnoxious ivory towers where snooty bookworms can sneer down at you as they spit on your ignorant pin-sized head with their big-word-infested saliva. Here we have kebab restaurants instead. Which reminds me...

5. Kebab restaurants!
A gratuitous calorie binge of salt, heat, grease, hair, fat, sauce, sweat and sugar. Everything mammals have ever craved since the dawn of time.

6. The Bosphorus
I can't believe it took me till number six to think of this one. After all, it's a gazillion cubic tons of water running through the middle of a city with giant ships floating on it. How could that not be awesome?

7. Nightlife
I know, it sucks that alcohol is so expensive, because we're governed by religious zealots who think it's their God-given right to impose their belief that alcohol is evil on everybody else by taxing the living shit out of it and bringing in all sorts of cunning legal and monetary impediments to being able to get a liquor license, but despite that - and also despite all the smart-ass waiters and wanky bartenders and douchy bar owners and overcrowded venues crammed with self-important poseurs... wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, I was saying nightlife is still pretty good in Istanbul (as long as you stay in Asmalimescit). See? I'm being positive.

8. Flags
This city is a dream for vexillophiles (yes, that's the word you get if you Google 'flag lover' - unless you happen to commit an unfortunate typo, in which case you don't want to know what you get, at least not here) because there's probably more flags here per capita than there are in post-9/11 U.S.A. (Question: why doesn't America sell its old used flags to Iran where there's such a high demand for them for burning and dancing around while chanting curses? America makes a much-needed buck and Iran gets real American flags that have been made in China or Taiwan instead of the shabby ones they put together locally with twenty-three blotchy stars and sloppy stripes that look like they were painted on by epileptic kindergartners? This could be the beginning of direct trade ties between the two countries, upon which you could grow further trade in the future, like in rocks - Iran needs them to throw at adulterers while America has a whole mountain range named after the stuff just sitting there... but I digress)

9. Starbucks
This is the name of a great coffee shop-slash-cafe located just near my house in Beyoglu. But they don't just serve coffee they also have special types of tea (called 'tchai'), edibles, and even CDs. They also have wireless Internet access (a.k.a. 'Wi-Fi' - not pronounced 'wifey' but 'why fly' without the 'l' in 'fly', or like 'hi-fi' but with a 'w' instead of the 'h'). They sell different kinds of coffee from all over the world, all of which are delicious. Although it's a little expensive, it's a lot better value for money than Gloria Jeans, who suck and have no shame. In fact, I predict they will even open another branch in some other part of Istanbul at some point. Who knows, maybe they could eventually even become a global brand?

10. Pretty things to make money off of tourists with
E.g. Haghia Sophia, Topkapi, the Grand Bazaar, Dolmabahce, the Underground Cisterns, Galata Tower, Istanbul Modern, shiny bracelets, etc.

There's probably a bunch of other stuff that doesn't immediately come to mind, but I'll end with number ten, because that's how many fingers and thumbs I have, and that fact in turn has had a huge impact on the preference for the decimal system in human civilization (with the exception of the ancient Mesopotamians, who had a sexagesimal system, but we only use that for time and geometry, not Istanbul), which in turn has meant that lists are commonly expected to be written and presented with ten items or factors of ten (i.e. 'Ten golden rules', 'Top Ten with David Letterman', 'Ten Things I Hate About You', TKOs, space launch countdowns, most articles in Cosmopolitan, etc.). Also, the title of the article is 'Ten reasons why Istanbul is great', so that doesn't leave much room for flexibility either. The end.

P.S. I also really like those kiosks that sell freshly squeezed juices.

4/2/08

The Sacred Sex: women in Turkey




The sanctification of women is also the source of their oppression.


There’s a belief in the conservative segment of our society (i.e. the overwhelming majority) that 'Woman is sacred'. You’ll find that slogan expressed almost solely by men - most conspicuously by our very own prime minister who stated that 'motherhood is sacred' and urged his countrymen to procreate and have at least three children per family. Surely you would think the espousal of the sanctity of women must be a good thing, but it isn’t. In fact that mindset is precisely the reason they are still de facto (if not de juris) second-class citizens in our country.

Sanctified apartheid
By saying that women are sacred - rather than 'humans are sacred' - we’re effectively saying that the difference between women and men is sacred, i.e. their sexual difference. After all, the sexual difference is the only difference. By ascribing sanctity to that difference, we effectively state that what is the same between men and women (their intellectual capacity, their ability to work, study, learn, conduct business, have a career, create art, lead companies, rule nations) is secondary to their ability to give birth. And that in turn means that we’re saying that the primary importance of a woman is as a child-bearer before all else, and that her 'sacred duty' is motherhood. And once we (read: Men) have made that sacred, we have thereby stated that it is not only imperative but 'God’s will' that women forsake their multifaceted human potential and focus solely on the task of child-rearing, child-bearing and the home.

Therein lies the source of an ongoing sexual apartheid in our culture. The men’s domain is the public sphere (society, politics, business, the local coffeehouse, the street), the women’s is the private sphere (home). This segregation was particularly profound before republican times, when the average Ottoman household was divided between the men’s sanctum 'Selamlik' (literally 'the place of greeting', where guests would be brought into the house to interact with the paterfamilias) and the women’s private sanctum, the 'Haremlik' (Harem being from the same Arabic root as the word 'haram' which means 'forbidden', and even 'sinful'). Today, of course, this effectively institutionalized sexual apartheid has been legally abandoned, but in the large conservative segment of our population it still persists in some form.

Public/private dichotomy
The headscarf ('turban') which is essentially just an item of clothing, has today become a heavily signified symbolization of sexual apartheid. Today, wearing the headscarf is a sign of religiosity, piousness and virtue. But beneath that, it is also an affirmation (and in many cases, the imposition) of the 'privateness' of women. The rationale behind it is the need to cover up the sexually defining parts of the female body when in the public sphere, which is deemed dangerous because it excites the male - who is master of the public sphere. In other words, the headscarf is the public manifestation of the woman’s privateness, her sanctity, her 'harem' (haram)-ness, her belonging in the home when not at home. When you consider that more than half of the population of women in our country wear a headscarf of some form, you’ll see how pervasive this sense of sexual division is.

So how could this symbolization of the sanctity of women also be considered a factor in the curtailing of women's freedom? After all, even though the headscarf can often be a male imposition on the part of fathers, brothers, husbands, and overall neighborhood pressure (in the form of surveiling eyes and gossip), it is also readily adopted by women themselves. In fact, ironically, it has become a symbol of freedom for many women in a country where aggressive secularism bans the wearing of the headscarf in public offices and universities. It is a backlash against Westernization, against the increase (or perceived increase) of sexual promiscuity in society, and especially against the exploitation and fetishization of female sexuality on the part of an unscrupulous media and entertainment sector (which itself takes advantage of a sexually repressed society by offering the public photos and clips in newspapers, magazines, and on TV that verge on soft porn). In such an environment, the wearing of the headscarf is like a declaration on the part of pious girls that says "I am a virgin" - an important thing to show in order to attract a potential husband in a conservative country like Turkey.*

Class and politics
There's also a political dimension to the headscarf that reflects shifting class dynamics in Turkish society. The headscarf has become the rallying symbol of a recently urbanized conservative Anatolian rural class who feel that they have been left out of the benefits and advantages of socio-economic development and political power that has for the most part been the exclusive domain of a Westernized secular Turkish elite. It's the symbol of a class that has felt alienated from that elite and has thus reaffirmed a more introverted "traditional" identification that more faithfully reflects their own lifestyle and values - which differ decidedly from that of the Westernized elites in terms of education, identity, and overall world-view. This new-found political manifestation of cultural identity has of course been bolstered by the fact that this vast segment of urbanized Anatolians have been moving up and out of the working class for the past 10-15 years and have now become not only a vibrant and prosperous part of the Turkish middle classes, but also an alternative kind of middle class - a pious, religious, outwardly and politically Islamic middle class - to what was once the exclusive domain of a secularized and westernized bourgeoisie. Now not only has a vibrant and prosperous alternative Islamic Economy emerged, with major corporations to its name, but this economic emergence has also been reflected in the political sphere: a fact that is manifest in the Islamic-oriented AKP which enjoys a huge 46% mandate from the 2007 elections and has been dominating the Turkish political scene for the past 7-8 years. Today, the president and the prime minister of Turkey are both members of this newly urbanized Anatolian strata, and both their wives - the first and second ladies of Turkey - wear Islamic headscarves.

Although this reaffirming of Islamic values has been a protest against a (well-founded) perception of having been considered inferior by the Turkish elites for so many decades, it has also now rivaled the accustomed righteousness of that secularized pro-Ataturkist elite with its own righteous and overbearing assumption that moral rectitude and superiority reside in being a pious practicing (and not just nominal) Muslim. That has meant that in this new Islamic middle class there has emerged a whole new range of social pressures to conform to, the headscarf being the most conspicuous of them. And so we are left with the inherent paradox of the Islamic headscarf in Turkey: it is both a symbol of defiant affirmation of one's own class identity **, while at the same time being the source of oppression and pressure on those women who might otherwise not want to wear it, but feel obliged to, because it is considered a religious exigency imposed upon them by the males who dominate their particular (Muslim middle class) social sphere. In a country where two schools of absolutist dogma face each other (Kemalism vs. Islamism) you get this strange situation where one side's freedom is another side's oppression, and where those two seemingly contradictory qualities end up forming two sides of the same coin.***

So, overall, the headscarf is, for the woman who has chosen to wear it, a reaffirming of "traditional" (i.e. religious)**** values and a protest against a dominant segment of society that she feels she is not a part of. But there-in lies an inner contradiction: by focusing on the sexual differences of women (through the need to cover up their breasts, figure, hair, and in extreme cases - as with the chador [charshaf] - the entire face, etc.) and basing an identity around the sanctity of those differences in the public/male sphere, one is essentially stating that woman only has value by what she is in the eye of the male, and that that difference (which is sexual) takes precedence over the woman’s quality as a fellow human being, one with the same (if not superior) capacity to be an equal member of the public sphere alongside men, and one with the same right to represent their nation in parliament, run a business, go as they please and wear what they like without being seen (or indeed, without seeing themselves) first and foremost as sexual objects who should refrain from exciting males, or as merely potential mothers and housewives who are expected to spend their lives doing back-breaking housework for no pay because 'it's a sacred duty'. And that's how the oppression becomes concrete: after all, how can you question and criticize - let alone change - that which is sacred and God-given? To do so - by its very definition - is sacrilege.

Muslims would interject here and say that it is precisely the veiling and covering of women which protects them from being considered sexual beings, and which guarantees that they are seen as something more than just 'sex objects'. But the logic is faulty because it already takes for granted the premise that women are primarily sexual beings in the eyes of males who must be protected from being considered sexual beings by those males. In other words, someone who believes that the veiling of women guarantees them respect already assumes that they are disreputable in the eyes of the world to begin with. It rests on the belief that when a man sees a woman, the first thing he thinks of is sex, not what she has to say or do or think. Therein lies the inherent degradation of women: the assumption that she is born 'sinful' and that only by altering and hiding her natural (ironically 'God-given') form she can become 'respectful' and 'virtuous'. But therein also lies the degradation of men: the assumption that men not only naturally consider women to be sex objects first and foremost, but that they also lack the power and self-control to master their own minds and temper their own impulses and urges, which thereby necessitates that women's rights and freedoms are curtailed to protect men from their own base urges, which in turn supposedly protects women themselves from being subjected to men acting on those base urges. In other words, the veil presumes that men are little better than chimpanzees.

Ladies don't use tampons
But beyond the issue of the headscarf, there are subtler examples of our tendency to perceive women first and foremost as sexual objects. One is the insistence in public to refer to women not as ‘kadin’ (woman) but as ‘bayan’ (lady), even though we don’t refer to men as ‘bay’ (gentleman) but simply as 'erkek' (man). Why is this strange? Because ‘kadin’ in Turkish also refers to a female who is no longer a ‘kiz’ - which means ‘girl’, but also ‘virgin’. In other words, even though we can refer to men as men, we consider it rude to refer to women as women, because ‘woman’ has the additional connotation of ‘sexual being who is no longer a virgin’. And yet ‘erkek’ in Turkish is also used as an adjective to signify male sexual prowess and power (erkeklik - i.e. manliness). Yet we don't consider it imperative to refer to men as ‘bay’. Following on from this, we can also cite tampons as an example. Until recently, you could only buy tampons at pharmacies. Even now they're only found in some big supermarkets. The mere mention of tampons in a store will draw leery glances. Why? Because a tampon user is (in a mistaken way) assumed to be a woman who has had sex and is no longer a virgin. Again, women's convenience takes second place to our consideration of them first and foremost as sexual beings, which means that selling tampons in any old store is rude and immoral. So even in situations where we think we're defending the honor of women (which is patronizing in itself), we are degrading them by thinking of them first and foremost (in fact often completely) as sexual beings.

It gets worse
But if we leave the relatively modern urban scene to delve into the semi-feudal southeastern and eastern regions of Turkey, the situation of women goes from a subtle kind of apartheid to one that becomes downright appalling, to the point where they are generally considered commodities - like cattle or a bucket - that can be exchanged at a price (the bride price, or bonnet money, which is paid by the potential husband to the prospective bride's family). They are often not considered worthy of education, nor of being in any way equals of men in society. They are basically the possession of men (first the father, then the husband, and in case of death of either of them, the eldest brother or brother-in-law respectively). They must be delivered untainted (virgins) to a man, otherwise it is often considered acceptable - indeed 'honorable' - to kill them. Hence the phenomenon of 'honor killings'. In some cases, men who lack the resources to pay a bride price, kidnap a girl, and even - in extreme cases - rape them, knowing that no other man would want her once she's lost her virginity. The real atrocity is that often their tactic works, and the family of the rape victim often have no choice but to consent to her marrying her rapist.

Woman has labor value, not human value
So why are we men so zealous about maintaining our grip over women, of controlling their movements, their appearance, their behavior, their freedom, their sexuality? Just like other commodities like land or gold or arms or oil, we always have a hard time letting go of something precious, something that is valuable and profitable to us. And that's what women are - especially in a semi-feudal area. Where wage-labor doesn't exist, the labor itself is what is valuable. Woman produces: offspring (more notably male offspring), food, agricultural work/tilling, and sex. When you control a woman's sexuality, you control who she can be given to, who you can form an alliance with, how much you can make from her sale (in terms of a bride price) and whether you can't give her to a family that is already part of your own extended family so as to use her services for the common good, and also keep the bride price within the extended family. All of this explains why endogamy is so common in Turkey, since the marriage of first cousins keeps the bride price from going to 'strangers'. Therefore, letting a woman be the master of her own destiny (i.e. choosing her own spouse, or choosing not to marry at all, giving her the freedom to travel, work, in short: choose) means relinquishing a valuable commodity which the man has ownership and power over. And as we know from the history of other valuable commodities, we are not immediately willing to let go of that which is profitable and lucrative that easily. In other words, the ongoing oppression and slavery of women is as much an economic issue as it is a 'cultural' one.*****

In the relatively modern urban environment, especially among the former rural migrants from Anatolia who now form a large swathe of the overall urban population, we find a continuation of this control over women in new forms. Women no longer till fields, obviously, but men still control who they can and can't marry, if/where they can work, and also what they can/should wear, do, and how they should act, with religiosity and piousness (or at least the outward signs of this, in the form of the headscarf) being synonymous with 'virtue'. While the economic factors have softened out, the cultural stigma persists, to the detriment of women in Turkey. The statistics speak for themselves. The cases of abuse, beatings, outright torture, and murder of women from husbands (and also fathers and brothers) is among the highest in the OECD, while the number of women representing their fellow citizens in political office is not only the lowest in the OECD, but lower than even many other predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries.

But enough ranting about women from yet another Turkish male. It's time to let women speak for themselves.


* To demonstrate the level of paranoia and stress on girls regarding the virginity issue, non-virgin girls often have their hymen stitched back up by a doctor before marriage.

** The political symbolism of the headscarf is now so powerful that its original utility value has in many cases almost disappeared. After all, what was once an item of clothing that was intended to cover-up a woman's beauty is now often worn with no such function in mind. It's now common to see headscarved girls wearing tight clothes that reveal - indeed show off - their figures, along with the fashionable big bulge of tied up hair bunched inside the headscarf that is suggestive of long, flowing, seductive locks. This shows how the headscarf has evolved to become more of an expression of identity than something merely functional - or even merely religious.

*** The headscarf (on the Islamist side) is a good case in point: what is essentially a symbol of subservience and the woman's not belonging to the public domain on an equal footing as men, is paradoxically also a symbol of freedom and defiance in the face of secular bans against the wearing of the headscarf in public offices and universities. On the other hand, a secular, pro-Western system that supposedly stands up for freedoms in the name of progress and women's equality ends up seeming like a form of oppression because it bans tens of thousands of headscarf-wearing women from going to university, effectively depriving them of a tertiary education, all of which paradoxically has the opposite effect of safeguarding women's equality.

**** We generally confuse "religious" with "traditional", as if religious dogma is a more natural part of our culture than, say, democracy or brimmed hats, and that it has been corrupted by a "foreign-imposed" and "unnatural" process of Westernization. But more on this in another essay.


***** This isn't a problem of just backwardness or Easternness or religiousness. Even among the modern Westernized classes of Turkey -- indeed even in the most developed, modern and Western countries of the world -- women are expected to raise children, cook, clean and do housework for no pay, relying only on their husbands' handouts.

3/28/08

Inconvenience me please!



If there’s one thing I love, it’s to be inconvenienced.

Excuse me sir, whatever it is you’re selling, could you repeatedly shout it at the top of your lungs through a bullhorn outside my window on this glorious Sunday morning please? What is it, onions? Potatoes? I don’t care, that’s fine, even though I know I can buy onions and potatoes anywhere, it’s amazing to know that if I so desired I could just be woken up from deep sleep at 7:30 am, get out of bed, hastily put on some clothes, walk down three flights of stairs, and buy a sack of cheap onions and/or potatoes from the back of your pickup so that I can proceed to eat twelve kilos of onions and potatoes for the next ten days of my life. Why is that nice to know? Because I love the inconvenience of it all!

I always knew I was in the best city to satisfy my compulsive need to be inconvenienced. Once I was aware that this was the dream place where I could be annoyed to my heart’s content, it was only a matter of finding the right flat where there would be regular water and electricity cuts, where the acrid stench of black mold in my dank bathroom and under my humid kitchen sink would creep up my nostrils with every neuron-killing breath, where the ceiling would always leak after it’s rained, and where there would always be a construction site somewhere near my home in which the constant sound of jack-hammering, workers shouting, and rubble being thrown on to a truck from a considerable height would only be drowned out by the raspy voice of a transvestite neighbor who likes to sing loud songs off-key every afternoon in what could only be an atrociously misguided attempt at securing a spot on a pop music reality show. Yep, I knew when I received a four-month unpaid water bill left over from the previous tenants that this was the place to be for an inconvenience addict like me!

Oh, wait, I have to stop wrjting fori ac secvodn… it’s the call to prayer from the mosque next door… at 100 decibels… from two brand new 200-watt speakers that are placed six and a half meters from my window… again, third time today… almost over now… Ok, done. Oh, now it’s the church bells, ding dong ding dong… I love it, whatever thought I had in my head before is gone. Perfect! Now I can retrace my mental steps… let’s see, I was talking about potatoes, mold, transvestites… oh yeah, my inconvenience addiction. Oh wait, that’s the door and the phone at the same time, let me answer those. Ok, wrong number again. Good thing there isn’t a telephone directory in Istanbul, since that would’ve been a little too convenient. Instead we can just dial the number we roughly think might be our friend’s new home number and just hang up without apologizing if we happen to be wrong. Hm, let’s see who’s at the door. Looks like someone’s food delivery came to me by mistake. Oh well, good thing the building and flat numbers aren’t marked out properly, and even if they were, the delivery boy can’t bother to read them, so a very inconvenient mishap is bound to happen. Score!

Ok, where was I? I keep getting distracted, it’s so inconvenient. I love it! Maybe I should just leave the flat for a bit and go for a walk to clutter my head with more noise and too many people everywhere. Aaaah, that’s better, the smell of urine outside my apartment door along with a small pile of shit beneath a cloud of hovering horseflies – the perfect start to an outing on a Beyoğlu backstreet. Ok, now if only the sidewalks were so narrow that I constantly have to jump in and out of speeding cars and scooters going the wrong way on a one-way street while I contort myself into a million awkward positions so that I can fit past people who either walk too slow, or walk three people side by side oblivious to other pedestrians, or who suddenly stop and talk into their cell phones, or who keep walking right down the middle of the footpath even while they’re staring at something behind them over their shoulder with mouth agape, and who then act surprised and indignant when they slam straight into me like it was my fault… that would be divine! Now if the odd person can also just jump out in front of me when exiting a shop or a building without looking left or right, thereby cutting me in my stride and causing me to stand there and wait for them as they decide which way they’re going to go themselves, that would be perfect. Yay! Oh, and could somebody please spit a gob of mucus on to a wall just as they overtake me, and then continue to loudly gurgle up another rumbling slop of sinusitic phlegm into their mouth as I’m left nervously anticipating when and where the next greenish yellow loogie will fly out and land with an audible splash somewhere in front of me? Double yay! Hey, let’s also not forget to enjoy the homeless person and the kid sucking fumes of paint thinner into his mouth from a filthy rag and the pack of feral unemployed youths eyeballing my girlfriend and the beggar asking for money, money, hey, do you have any money? Sweet!

I know I’m not the only inconvenience connoisseur out there. After all, literally thousands of people flock from all over the world to this cutting edge city of inconvenience every year. In fact, you’re probably one of them. So here are some tips to making the most that this city has to offer inconvenience-whores like us: 1) Be impatient. When everybody impatiently tries to get their own stuff done faster than everybody else, there arises an unavoidable bottleneck in which everybody’s business gets delayed way past what the delay would’ve been if everybody were more patient, respectful and considerate instead. That means fights, shouting, haggling, finger-pointing and hatefulness… Inconvenience jackpot! 2) Act like nobody else exists and the world revolves around you. When you block out the existence of others, you naturally end up trampling all over their right to any kind of human consideration. Could anything be more inconvenient for everyone? I think not! 3) Fret. Nothing says ‘I’m better than you’ better than fretting and tsk-tsk-tsk-ing and complaining out loud like you were the last precious person on earth and the world had just been overrun by human-sized dung beetle larvae. Potentially inconvenient situations for everyone concerned as a result of your unabashed arrogance? Check! 4) Be temperamentally volatile and ready to fly off the handle at any given moment because you can’t control your emotions. Someone just made you wait 12 seconds while loading their groceries into their car as you wait for their parking space? Teach them some manners and compare them to villagers and day-laborers (you must first consider those two types of people bad, and then use metaphoric comparison to said people in a pejorative and demeaning sense). Inconvenience factor from resulting two-way mudslinging contest as other vehicles pile up behind you amid the amplified echo of honking car horns in a closed parking lot? High! 5) Let others clean up after you. Hey, are you a garbage collector? Hm? No? Well then are you a street sweeper? Hm? Of course not! So why don’t you just leave all those leftover egg shells and half-eaten sandwiches and newspapers and plastic bags from your picnic strewn all over the park for someone else to pick up? Inconvenience code level: Red!

Now make my day and push into the queue I’ve been waiting in for the last 5 minutes and then threaten me with physical violence when I try to explain that there’s a line of people waiting please!