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Linguistic imperialism

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I’ve only quoted Carl Schmitt once before on this blog. He deserves some more mention. So here’s a good quote, from The Nomos of the Earth:

A historically meaningful imperialism is not only or essentially military panoply, not only financial and economic prosperity, but, also, this ability to determine in and of itself the content of political and legal concepts. . . . A nation is conquered first when it acquiesces to a foreign vocabulary, a foreign concept of law, especially international law. 

Written by M. James

February 20, 2014 at 11:16 am

Posted in History, Politics

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The Book on the Sidewalk

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The following was written as a guest post for Atatürk’s Republica collaborative blog that seeks to follow Turkish news, politics, arts, and culture.

Seçmeler, by Peyami Safa.

Seçmeler, by Peyami Safa.

Weather-permitting, it is not uncommon to see a young man selling books outside of the Nâzım Hikmet Cultural Center in Ankara. As in many places in Turkey, the wares are carefully assembled on a repurposed aquamarine* bed sheet and laid out on the sidewalk for passers-by to politely ignore while the peddler busies himself with something else—in this case, reading.

On one particular late-May afternoon, I happened across this man after a perplexing transaction with an unctuous electronics salesman and a relatively gratifying transaction with a tobacconist. The point being, I was in a good enough mood to stop and look. I’d always found these displays somewhat romantic, yet crude. So while interested, I didn’t want to be seen patronizing the odd practice. I would rarely stop to look.

As usual, the books were mainly either beyond my linguistic abilities of comprehension or counter to my sense of propriety. One, however—an older, water-damaged paperback—caught my attention. It was a compilation, a volume of the collected newspaper articles and columns of the late Peyami Safa, journalist and novelist extraordinaire. An unusual find.

After several more minutes of nervous browsing, I picked the book off of the sidewalk for the third and final time, leaving a conspicuous aquamarine gap, like a missing tooth. The young man looked up from his book only when I approached him with my selection. He asked for three lira. I gave him five—it was worth far more than five lira to me.

A few days ago, I found the time to give that book some of the attention it deserves. Here’s one of the more serendipitous, yet disturbing, selections I found, titled “The Book on the Sidewalk.” I will let it speak for itself, perhaps to be expanded on later:


In yesterday’s article, “Book Morgue,” Salâhaddin Güngör had this to say about the book displays that have cropped up on nearly every street-corner: “There are so many valuable and rare books in those displays that one would be shocked what can be had for the price of a glass of Hamidiye water.”

In Turkey, there is nothing that suffers as much indignity as books. Not just Hamidiye water, but cigarette butts, filthy rags, old shoes, empty bottles, and even the broken wood and iron scavenged from rubble will all fetch a higher price than their own raw materials—and more buyers, too. Only books, only those damned, wretched books are placed on the same ground as dog waste and put up for sale without so much as a piece of cloth beneath them. When a country gives the same position to knowledge and literature as it gives to its heels, and places the nourishment of its mind underfoot, that suggests that books have about as much dignity as the brooms in grocers’ shops (at least the brooms are hung one or two meters off the ground).

Script both new and old, authors both great and insignificant, works from both east and west, compilations, translations, and every variety of writing, writer, and quality—all underfoot.

Fellow-citizen! There is a danger as dreadful as an enemy invasion hidden in this tragedy. Fellow-citizen! Great catastrophes will utterly destroy the progress of any nation where books crawl on the ground. Fellow-citizen! Good, bad, valuable, worthless, compilation, and translation, buy your share of these books! Sell your bedspreads if need be, but buy these books and get them off the ground!

 Tan, July 23rd, 1935

*I.e., the color of public pool locker room tiles. No, the peddlers’ bed sheets are not always aquamarine, but when they are, I remember it.

†A high-mineral-content water piped from Istanbul’s Belgrade Forest since 1902; apparently a subject of derision for quite some time now.

‡Referring to both Latin and Arabic script, the latter of which was officially canned in 1929 and replaced by the modern Turkish language.

Written by M. James

January 31, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Geceyarısı Ekspresi

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Everyone who knows something about Turkey knows Midnight Express. And so do most people who know nothing about Turkey, wherein lies the problem with the film—its success. The film’s acclaim has left its broad American audience with an unflinchingly brutal portrait of Turks as prison rapists and torture artists, which the Turks do not particularly appreciate.

The cynic could, of course, attribute Turks’ dislike for the film to a perceived damage done to their vital tourism industry (probably true), but in my experience, the hurt is genuine. The film, they think, was just plain unfair—unwarranted. And what’s even worse is that it just won’t… go… away. Here’s a Turkish columnist’s wry commentary on one such new development.

The Express nightmare returns
İzzet Çapa; Hürriyet; January 13th, 2014

The calamitous nightmare that showed us as a kind of boogeyman for years, Midnight Express, is coming back.

The writer and “hero” of the novel, Billy Hayes, enemy of the Turks, will now take the stage in The Midnight Express, a one-man play starting January 22nd on Broadway. Billy will allegedly play out heretofore unrevealed details from his time in İmralı. Obviously running short on money, he is once again bringing up old issues of ours.

Ouch. But actually, the title is Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, and there is an indication that part of the purpose of the play is to “correct” some of the fictional fabrications from the movie. So maybe you shouldn’t be so critical, Mr. Çapa.

Fans of one-man plays about Turkish prison (appealing, no?) can go here for tickets.

Written by M. James

January 13, 2014 at 3:28 am

Gökalp on ümmet, devlet, and millet

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Though this particular problem may be historical, the general problem is a timeless one. What follows is a brilliant exposition of the three central concepts surrounding early Turkish modernization, and the three groups who fought for ownership of those concepts:

Gökalp, Ziya, “The Ideal of Nationalism: three currents of thought,” trans. Niyazi Berkes, Nationalism in Asia and Africa, ed. Elie Kedourie

When we look at social realities, we cannot fail to see that an Islamic ümmet, an Ottoman state (devlet), a Turkish or an Arab nation (millet) do exist. However, if this statement corresponds to any reality, the term “ümmet” must denote the totality of those people who profess the same religion, the “state” all those who are administered under the same government, and the “nation” all those who speak the same language. The statement will be valid and will correspond to reality only if the above definitions are accepted. It seems, then, that those who do not accept this statement deny it, not because its meaning does not correspond to reality, but because they do not believe that these words are suitable for denoting the respective meanings.

The Islamists say that the word “nation” [millet; Arabic milla] denotes what we cover by the word “ümmet.” The term “milla,” they say, means “sect” in Arabic. The perfection of a language means the existence of a meaning for every word and a word for every meaning, and also the existence of words expressing several meanings. Even if we ourselves do not do this, the language itself will. It is for this reason that the current [Turkish] language uses the word “ümmet” for those who belong to the same religion, and the word “millet” for those who speak the same language. As the majority of the people uses them with these specific meanings, we too must accept them. There is no use creating difficulties on questions of terminology.

The Ottomanists, on the other hand, believe that the “state” and the “nation” are synonymous. To them, the sum total of the citizens of a state constitutes a nation. This might be true, if we disregarded reality and took only the logical relation between the concepts into account. As a matter of fact, to have a state composed of peoples who speak the same language, or to make only those peoples who speak the same language an independent state, seems more natural and most desirable. But are existing states formed that way? If not, then how is it justifiable to disregard that which is existing and to believe that what ought to exist is really existing?

The Turkists, on the other hand, criticizing the theses of these groups, come to the following conclusions: (a) the ümmet and the nation are different things; (b) the nation and the state are also not the same. One may object to these conclusions, but only in so far as they do not correspond to sociological realities, and not by insisting that these realities should not be so. We must fit our concepts to the realities and not the realities to our own concepts!

Written by M. James

November 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Incorporation in Islam

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A similar phenomenon to the absence of Western state-theory:

Stern, S.M., “The Constitution of the Islamic City,” The Islamic City: A Colloquium


I should like to put forward the idea that one of the striking differences between the society of medieval western Christendom and Islamic society was this: that whereas in the former all sorts of corporate institutions proliferated, in the latter, they were entirely absent. The propensity to organize institutions in the form of corporations was not in the West something primeval, but arose, if I am not mistaken, sometime about the eleventh century. I am not competent to give a reasoned account of this development or to try to determine its causes, but shall perhaps not stray too far from the mark if I suggest that the example of the religious orders with their highly developed constitutions had a great deal to do with this; a secondary factor may be the existence in Roman law of the idea of legal associations and juridicial persons.

. . .

Written by M. James

November 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm

How democracy changed

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The perception of democracy as the tyranny of the largest, lowest class of people has persisted since Plato, but in the shadow of a new concept of the state, the twentieth century has changed our definition of democracy.

It is gratifying to look back on a prior post to recall a thought and to find that I’d recorded something worthwhile. How clever I was.

It is much more gratifying, however, to look back on a prior post and find the opposite—that something I wrote is clearly in need of revision. How far I’ve come.

As long as this revision process is not futile in its infinity, or infinite in its futility, it seems that something must have improved between then and now. Or maybe not,* but I like to think so.

Operating under this assumption, I ought to revise a prior post, which suggested that the concept of “democracy” has changed significantly over time—but without explaining what really seems to have changed. Clearly, and as I so aptly noted, one of the defining differences between Plato’s “democracy” and modern “democracy” is the strange method of sortition. Sortition, or casting lots, was a trademark of the ancient concept of true democracy. It was the means by which the demos acknowledged the equality of men. To instead cast ballots (as in ancient Athens) was considered aristocratic, oligarchic, and—generally—preferable.

I’ve explained all of this already, with the implicit conclusion that today’s democracy differs only in that one regard—that it chose not to employ sortition as its means. And yes, while this certainly is a practical difference, it is only superficial, and perhaps misleading.

What is so interesting about the “democracy” of the last sixty years, the democracy of today, is its moral weight—its near-universal acceptance as a superior form of government. This is in direct contrast to Plato’s experience. Was it when sortition was suddenly outmoded, then, that we all became modern, electoral democrats, simply redefining an aspect of the term? Was this why we were now in possession of  this “highest form of political or social organization” (UNESCO, 1951)? Or this “worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Churchill, 1951)?

One need only to refer to the Framers of the Constitution of the United States to see that it was not so simple. The Framers were suspicious of democracy because, to them, it meant the “tyranny of the majority.” This was not Plato’s democracy that the Founders spoke of, either—it was ostensibly modern democracy. Electoral democracy. Clearly, sortition was not the problem that they had in mind. The problem was that there was still a class of people, the “majority,” who would tyrannize the minority—with votes. This “majority” was unequivocally the “lower class,” and the conventional political wisdom at the time was that if someone had to be a tyrant, it ought not be the lower class.

But today, seemingly having brushed off those early concerns, democracy is no longer associated with the dangers of the tyranny of the lower class. Our modern conventional wisdom, and American elementary school education, suggests that the reason that these dangers disappeared—which were once a central concern for both Plato and the Framers and many in-between—was because of the “checks and balances” set up by the U.S. Constitution.

Certainly, much of the subsequent stability of the United States’ system can be attributed to that clever balance of powers, but history should disabuse us of the notion that democracy’s class-association simply disappeared. Especially by overtly assigning an aristocracy to limit the destructive capacity of the common people, as the Constitution did.

The Jacksonian era (1830s) may be the best example of the persistence of the theme of “class rule.” Jackson’s Democratic party saw itself as the expression of the will of the common man, the producer, who was naturally at odds with the unproductive banker-and-speculator class, the plutocrat, who was represented by the Whigs. It was significant that Jackson’s party line worked.

If anything, the rapid industrialization of the Reconstruction Era and Gilded Age, up to the turn of the century, only widened the chasms between the owners of capital and the working class—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—and enforced the class-rule fears of democracy. Indeed, it is difficult to view these developments independently of contemporary Marxism-Leninism, which foresaw and encouraged the revolution of the productive working class against the idle owners of capital.

But try as it might, the world never gave birth to a true proletarian revolution as Marx would have had it. Neither did the Jacksonian Democrats, nor the later Populists, ever come to tyrannize the tycoons. The twentieth century instead brought forth a class of technocrats who could deliver on the former promises of the Whigs—economic prosperity, cryptically redistributed to all (nineteenth-century Reaganomics). Except these were now the Democrats delivering on these promises, harnessing the taxing, banking, oversight, and coercion capacity of the state as never known before. What could be called “distributive politics” began, and the state’s beneficent oversight did not—indeed could not—limit its “distributions” to any particular class. Everyone, from the poverty-stricken worker to the successful corporate industrialist, would have their affairs arbitrated and rectified, in some capacity, by the state.

Not only did the state begin to serve as a referee, and perhaps a dividing screen, between the classes (minimum-wage laws, working-conditions legislation, industrial and banking oversight); but it also conspicuously raised the lowest standards of living. Both the material wealth distinctions and the relational animosities between the haves and the have-nots shrank considerably. An all-inclusive social group emerged—those who were in thrall to a powerful state.

Class, while it would certainly persist, would not play a similar role in elections after this modern variety of state emerged. American lower-class interests, in the aftermath of these changes, became many, varied, and politically heterogeneous. Today’s political parties, it can be noted, reflect this change, whereby a young Cleveland machinist and a retired D.C. defense-industry CEO are voting for the same party. Even granted our modern, industrialized, urbanized context, this development would seem strange to Plato and John Adams. This is most certainly not the democracy that they knew.

But it is this strange development toward a twentieth-century democracy which has understandably won the imagination of the whole world, and which now also threatens to plunge whole societies into the factionalism and class war that democracy—absent a strong, liberal state—has traditionally fostered.

Our collective misunderstanding of the meaning of “democracy,” with what meaning remains in the word, will only strip it of all descriptive power and make it all the more certain that such mistakes will be made. The twenty-first century is sure to be ripe with them.


*From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument 
About it and about: but evermore 
Came out by the same door where in I went. 

Written by M. James

September 5, 2013 at 3:31 am

Posted in History, Politics

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Paved with good intentions

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Having previously made the point that the interests of many states converge in Syria, here’s a bit of timely, yet timeless, wisdom from Paul Johnson’s Modern Times (p. 14):

It is commonplace that men are excessively ruthless and cruel not as a rule out of avowed malice but from outraged righteousness. How much more is this true of legally constituted states, invested with all the seeming moral authority of parliaments and congresses and courts of justice! The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless. Expand the state and that destructive capacity necessarily expands too, pari passu.


Written by M. James

August 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm