Thirty Thousand Attempts to Keep Turkey Out of the EU

I was attracted at first to UCLA History Professor Perry Anderson’s contribution to the London Review of Books (LRB) in the 11 Sep 2008 issue (“After the Ottomans”, also titled “Kemalism”) by four peculiarities.

First of all the topic: the discussions about letting Turkey in the European Union are obviously helping define what the “European Union” actually is (or is not). The history of modern Turkey occupies an important spot in the debate, and Anderson’s article promised to deal with that in great detail.

In fact (and here lies the second oddity about “After the Ottomans”) it was a very long piece, running to a total of more than 14,000 words.

This is not a good or bad thing per se: but the vast majority of LRB articles are much, much shorter, little more than a couple of pages in print and less than 5,000 words (2,700 words for Rosemary Hill‘s “Making Do and Mending”, 25 Sep 2008; 4,700 words for Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “Like a Thunderbolt”, 11 Sep 2008) .

Longer pieces are not common; for example the 15,000 words for John Upton’s “In the Streets of Londonistan”, 22 Jan 2004). Actually, the fact that authors are given a restricted space to express their opinions, does set the LRB apart from, say, the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.

Third, LRB articles usually sport very peculiar titles (check the examples above): Anderson’s was very uncharacteristically just a pure statement of fact.

Fourth, as it appeared obvious from the start, Anderson was not going to review any particular book: “After the Ottomans” was an essay in political history, with more than a whiff of polemics about everything Turkey.

Imagine then my surprise (or lack thereof) when the very next issue of the LRB hosted yet another Perry Anderson article on Turkey (“After Kemal”, 25 Sep 2008).

Once again the unimaginative title, the lack of any book to review (rather than simply quote and mostly, summarily dispose of), and the huge amount of paper devoted to it: 10 full pages, 16,000 words, of course mostly with very little of positive to say about Turkey.

So we got all of 30,000+ words on the single topic of post-Ottoman Turkish history: perhaps a record for the LRB, perhaps not. But it was all natural that I started wondering what was behind the LRB Editors’ choice to deluge their readers with enough words to fill up around 15 “standard” articles.

Now, I am not going to dwell into the “truth” of what Anderson has written about, from the end of the Ottoman Empire to today (it would be nice if a counter-article were to appear, perhaps on the LRB itself).

Who am I (who is anybody) to be able to reply to Anderson’s finely detailed history of Turkey, without risking getting buried by hundreds of pieces of information that only a lifelong study of a subject can provide?

And still: the two bits I dare considering myself rather familiar with, the conditions leading to the 1980 coup and the preparations and aftermath of the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, I do not remember them as clear-cut as described by Anderson, with the Turks invariably playing the “baddy” roles.

In truth, “After the Ottomans” and “After Kemal” do not read as works of scholarship as much as political-journalistic polemical essays, like a pamphlet of old, with an underlying “discourse” that keeps both articles together and absolutely consistent throughout. Oh, and all scholars that disagree with Anderson, each single one of them, have sold their souls to the Devil, I mean, the Ankara government.

In Anderson’s Turkish history everything is explained and neatly falls in place within the “narrative”. Even what shouldn’t follow that pattern (like the end of Menderes’ rule after being described as economically and politically strong) is classified as “part of a cycle” common to all centre-right Turkish governments: a cycle whose existence and reasons are however not truly explored.

Therein lies my biggest critique of Anderson’s double anti-Turkish whammy. Readers are being offered a partial and partisan representation of history, dressed up as the one and only truth, with no a single doubt expressed to it.

Turkey, they learn, is invariably on the wrong side of history (Turkish leftist politicians aside, apparently), behaving rather badly and with little in common to the rest of Europe, apart from a relentlessly-pursued (by Anderson) list of all that makes successive Kemalist and post-Kemalist governments in Ankara a sort of heirs to the Nazis.

That may be so: but why devote 30,000 words to it right now? Well, Anderson does actually provide an unwitting explanation to that: ironically, by making a very strong case for Turkish EU membership:

The conventional reasons for which it is pressed within the EU are legion: militarily, a bulwark against terrorism; economically, dynamic entrepreneurs and cheap labour; politically, a model for regional neighbours; diplomatically, a bridge between civilisations; ideologically, the coming of a true multiculturalism in Europe. In the past, what might have been set against these considerations would have been fears that such an elongation of the Union, into such remote terrain, must undermine its institutional cohesion, compromising any chance of federal deepening. But that horse has already bolted. To reject Turkish membership on such a basis would be shutting the door well after there was any point in it. The Union is becoming a vast free range for the factors of production, far from an agora of any collective will, and the addition of one more grazing ground, however large or still relatively untended, will not alter its nature.

In Turkey itself, as in Europe, the major forces working for its entry into the Union are the contemporary incarnations of the party of order: the bourse, the mosque, the barracks and the media. The consensus that stretches across businessmen and officers, preachers and politicians, lights of the press and of television, is not quite a unanimity. Here and there, surly voices of reaction can be heard. But the extent of concord is striking. What, if the term has any application, of the party of movement? It offers the one good reason, among so many crass or spurious ones, for welcoming Turkey into the Union. For the Turkish left, politically marginal but culturally central, the EU represents hope of some release from the twin cults and repressions of Kemal and the Koran; for the Turkish poor, of chances of employment and elements of welfare; for Kurds and Alevis, of some rights for minorities

Is it this then: with his essays, is Anderson trying to weigh in to keep Turkey out the EU unless certain conditions are met, exactly because there is an overwhelming list of reasons for Turkey to be accepted right now? It is telling that the listed “hopes” for the Turkish left, the Kurds, the Alevis form for Anderson some of the reasons for impeding Turkey’s “accession process”: thereby killing those very same “hopes”…

One last point: Anderson has been provided a pulpit by a major publication. Is the LRB in the business of torpedo-ing the chances for a European Turkey?

I do think the LRB Editors should come out honestly about it, explaining their own reasons for allocating a large amount of magazine real estate to…a pamphlet. A pamphlet unlike any other LRB article.