by Troy Headrick
(Swans - December 18, 2006) I'm grateful to have been asked by Gilles d'Aymery to write an essay on 2006 -- "from my perspective," he specified. First of all, this matter of "perspective" is tricky. I anticipate that much of what I'll have to say in this piece will be about American politics and culture, but my knowledge of those is limited to information I can gather second-hand, filtered through the Internet. My first-hand knowledge is actually quite limited. That's because I live in Turkey and have for the past several years. I realize that all this adds up to a very complex point of view.
The truth is, I live in the Middle East partly because I decided I didn't want to reside in Bush's America. I have several expatriate friends, currently camped out here and there around the globe, who've told me the same thing. They live where they do because of their political beliefs. There are plenty of Americans who genuinely consider themselves exiles.
Just a couple of weeks into 2006, I went to the library at the university where I work and checked out a book called It Can't Happen Here, a novel by Sinclair Lewis that was published in 1935. If you are an American or interested in American politics and/or culture, I suggest that you find a copy and have a look. It tells the story of what happens when the country elects Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a very personable ex-senator -- the sort of average joe almost anyone would like to drink a beer with -- who very promptly (as soon as he's sworn in as president) begins running the country like the dictator he's always dreamed of becoming. Lewis's ironic title is a touch of genius. It clearly indicates that he obviously understood the limitations of his compatriots. Most Americans think that fascism or tyranny could never come to the States because the country is somehow immune to the political maladies that plague other places.
In another related matter, I'm reminded that we had a truly brutal winter here in Ankara in 2006. The months of January and February were especially harsh. In the evenings, I'd come home from work, peal off the layers of clothing I'd put on in the morning, and then settle in with Lewis's book, while the snow fell from the sky and blanketed this portion of the Cumhuriyet. After reading just a few pages, I'd get this chill running right down the middle of my spine even though I had the radiators in my apartment turned up full blast. There were the accompanying feelings of nausea and claustrophobia, so I'd step out onto my balcony to get a breath or two of fresh air. Of course, going outside always made my lips turn a dead-man blue.
I finished the novel in February and then started paying very close attention to the news. By the way, when I say "the news," I mean Internet news, as I've alluded to. I would never watch TV if I actually wanted to understand anything of significance. Here, in Turkey, I do not own a television. In fact, I have not possessed one since the summer of 2002. The quickest way to get cancer of the intellect is to go out and buy a big, fat TV, plug it in, and then spend time letting its freaky blue light wash over you.
Oscar Wilde once said that life imitates art. This was certainly true in 2006. I was surprised (or maybe I wasn't) to discover that a number of news stories published on the Net seemed remarkably similar to the things Lewis predicted would happen when and if America went over to the dark side. For your information, I'll include only brief summaries of a few of the more troubling stories that were published during the first half of '06.
Firstly, the world learned about Professor James E. Hansen, Director of the National Aeronautical Space Administration's (NASA's) Goddard Institute for Space Studies and preeminent expert on global warming. As reported in several places, Dr. Hansen has long felt that global warming is caused by human activities. And his most recent work shows that the phenomenon is accelerating dramatically. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has been using its formidable powers to silence the concerned researcher. According to Hansen, the current government is the most secretive and controlling he has ever worked with during his more than thirty years at NASA. (1) Then there was the American Civil Liberty Union's (ACLU's) "NSA Spying on Americans is Illegal" that appeared in Z Magazine. In the article the ACLU very clearly shows that the government's snooping, which began shortly after 9/11, is both a threat to the individual and the Constitution. In a very chilling passage, Bruce Schneier, a security expert of some renown, calls the spying "an illegal invasion of privacy on a scale that has never before been seen." (2) Thirdly, in an article that received wide Internet distribution, including an appearance on the Common Dreams Web site, Drew Brown reports the results of a study conducted by Human Rights Watch. The results of that investigation show that hundreds of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay have been tortured or abused and that a large number have even died at the hands of their captors. The report also unambiguously points out that several hundred American military personnel have been involved in these abuses. (3) And finally, in a May article that was published on the The Guardian Web site, Al Gore calls the Bush administration "a renegade band of rightwing extremists," (4) which prompts yours truly to ask, "What the hell took you so long, Al?"
But it wasn't all bad news during 2006. For example, this past summer, during my annual vacation period, I took a wonderful trip back to Texas and was able to reconnect with family and friends. These trips every summer are vital from a psychological point of view. Because I have chosen to live so far away from loved ones, I often find that I suffer from terrible guilt. After all, I was raised in a very traditional southern family, one that taught me to abide by a strict code of conduct. I was socialized to believe that I should never, no matter what the circumstances, abandon my family the way I have done. And it makes it so much worse that I have chosen to live in that strange place called the Middle East, a part of the world that produced those "evildoers" that attacked America on 9/11 (that is, if you believe the official story of that day). So, in yearly attempts to provide myself with a bit of absolution, I load up into a big bird of a plane and fly over land and sea so that I can spend a few weeks visiting with all the important people I've left behind. This past summer was no exception to that rule. In addition to putting me back in the good graces of numerous blood relatives, those trips also always provide me with a chance to observe America first hand, with fresh eyes, and thus, once again, play the amateur anthropologist (one of my favorite roles). On these excursions, I always learn something new about the place where I used to hang my hat, so to speak.
Thus, on a warm day in July of 2006, I flew from Esenboga Airport in Ankara to Midland International Airport in Texas. Between here and there, though, I made stops in Istanbul, Chicago, and Dallas. It turned out to be, as I knew it would, an epic travel experience.
Because my mom wasn't able to meet me at the airport, she'd arranged to have a cab drive me the forty miles to Big Spring, the place where she lives and a dusty town out in the middle of nowhere West Texas. The taxi driver picked me up in an enormous beast of a machine called a Chevy Suburban. Only a few miles into our trip, he turned to me and asked, "So like, tell me, where you flying in from?"
"Turkey," I answered sleepily.
"Is that over there where they're having all those problems?"
"No more problems than anywhere else. You might be thinking of another country."
"Yeah, you're probably right. They're all kinda mixed up in my mind. So, you're not in any danger?"
"Nope," I replied while squelching a yawn.
Some miles later, for a reason I can't quite remember now, the driver pushed up his T-shirt sleeve and showed me the marijuana leaf he'd tattooed on the upper part of one of his biceps. He flexed his muscle a few times, causing the leaf to pulsate just like a beating heart.
That encounter with a real authentic Texan was the first of many such experiences I had while back home during the summer of '06. Citizens of that enormous piece of geography are a real paradox. On the one hand, they seem terribly "programmed." A very large percentage of the folks think and say exactly what you'd expect them to think and say. They walk around repeating, on just about a word-for-word basis, what they've heard some right-wing zealot say on FOX news. On the other hand, they have this antiestablishment streak running clear through them. Just scratch the surface of almost any Texan you find and you're very apt to discover a wild-eyed renegade just below the veneer.
So, I spent a good portion of my waking hours getting reacquainted with my family and observing Lone Star Staters of every type. I also spent a lot of July and August tapping out my thoughts on the keyboard of my trusty Gateway, savoring cheese enchiladas at La Posada restaurant, camping out on my favorite barstool at The San Franciscan Bar and Grill listening to the fellows onstage play that wonderfully danceable Tejano music, and lying in the hammock in my mother's backyard watching the sun move incrementally down the sky until it turned the whole scene a flamingo pink.
All those activities filled me with pleasure. The one that filled with hope, though, was hearing what people around me were saying. Many Texans were showing signs that they were in a paradigm shift in their thinking about their Commander in Chief. Upon hearing all those things spoken by ordinary folks, I hoped (with fingers crossed) that the upcoming midterm congressional elections would be a watershed that would wrest some control away from the villains and kooks that had entrenched themselves in the power places of Washington, DC.
In August I flew back to Turkiye. Another school year began shortly after my arrival in Ankara. Once again, I was assigned to team teach (with a buddy in the philosophy department) a yearlong writing class in which the students read classic philosophy texts, written by the great minds of antiquity, and then write about them. It's a good gig, and I'm glad to have it. Of course, as the semester began, I also continued to stay plugged in to the world of political happenings as represented on the World Wide Web. Soon, the days began to shorten and the leaves drop from the trees, and as they did, I kept at least one of my eyes on the calendar at all times. November 7, 2006, was going to be a very important day.
On the morning of the 7th, a Tuesday, the day we were scheduled to work our way through a section of Aristotle's The Politics, I began my class with a brief talk about the elections that were to begin later that day in the U.S. My students -- many of whom had publicly denounced American foreign policies during heated class discussions -- sat raptly listening to what I had to say. I told those young Turks that this was a potential make or break moment and that I had high hopes the voters would send a strong message of repudiation to those ears that needed to hear one. Of course, I talked about my fears as well. I talked about being worried about the integrity of the vote-counting process. My students hadn't heard much about the electronic voting machines that had come on the scene in recent years, and they knew virtually nothing about their vulnerability to computer hackers. The more I told them, the more shocked they became. I finished up by arguing that the outcome of this election would have repercussions in all parts of the world, including right here in Turkey.
I rushed home after work and immediately got on the Internet to see what was happening. Early reports worried me. Quite a few bloggers were discussing the large number of "irregularities" that were popping up around the country. Lots of people were reporting instances of vote-flipping on Diebold and other machines. I had this profound sense of foreboding at that point. I was afraid that the Bush Machine had figured out that they could steal the election by causing lots of electoral chaos. Because of the time differences between the two countries, it was getting quite late here even before the polls had closed in many places. I decided that my best course of action would be to go to bed, set my alarm clock for 4:00 am, then rise and shine once it went off. I hoped that things would be a lot clearer by that time.
I jumped up out of bed as soon as I heard that electronic beeping sound. I threw on some clothes and stumbled to my living room. I got the overhead light on as quickly as my fingers could find the switch and pushed the power button on the computer. I was connected to the world in no time at all. Some results were in, and some races were too close to call. I blinked my eyes a few times, just to make sure that I was fully awake and seeing what I thought I saw. It appeared that the Democrats would take control of the House of Representatives. They were also making a very good showing in the Senate. Of course, the sun eventually came up in the east and I had to get ready to go off to work. All day long, though, even while I was sitting at my teacher's desk, I kept refreshing the page that had the latest election results. It became clear -- even as so many of us were sitting around holding our breath -- that the bums had been thrown out and that the opposition party (if there is such a thing in America) had gained control of both houses of congress! Yippee!
In the days immediately following the election, I noted a difference in the Turks I came in contact with on a daily basis. I saw, in their eyes, this look that seemed to indicate that the results of that historic Tuesday had had a profound effect. I could see that many were now willing to take a baby step in the direction of beginning to trust the United States again. It was certainly obvious that they were breathing just a tad easier. (Americans who've never lived in this part of the world have no real appreciation for the impact American foreign policies have on the various peoples of the Middle East. It's always ironic and sometimes tragic that Turks often feel the repercussions of decisions made in Washington far more than most citizens of America do.)
And there was more good news on the way -- Swans was soon to publish my first piece.
Looking back now, those cold and snowy days of last January and February seem like such a long time ago. And as the snows were falling and melting and then falling again, there was much bad news, all of it delivered via that incredible web that seems to connect us, one to another. In those cold days, it was very easy to imagine that Sinclair Lewis had gotten it right, terribly right. Of course, the summer eventually came in 2006, and I flew back home. It was a wonderful visit that did much to rejuvenate me. As I'm sitting here typing out this last paragraph, it seems that the circle is beginning to complete itself. The leaves have all fallen from the trees once again. Soon there'll be snow (we had our first a few weeks ago, but it all melted fairly quickly). For sure, at this time of year, a cold wind is blowing. Today, though, despite the wind, there is plenty of sunshine.
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