The uncle and the physicist

by Cem Sey

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

The Turkish term "Kabadayi" translates as "strict uncle" and descibes a culture which emerged in the latter years of the Ottoman empire. Uncles refer to men whose opinion shaped the empire's social sphere. They were known for their honesty and as advocates for the poor and the weak. They clearly said that the fight for oppressed would not happen without "just violence". And this breed of popular hero, who rolls up his shirt sleeves and challenges the prevailing injustice of the privileged, is in the throes of a renaissance on the Bosphorus Strait. Without doubt, the most famous "Kabadayi" in Turkey today is the President himself.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has honed his image as a straight talker and has become the hero of all those who long for a no-nonsense postmodern culture. Erdoğans comparatively poor family hailed from Black Sea coast. He grew up in Kasimpasa, a working-class urban district. As a child, Erdoğan sold sesame rings to improve his family's meagre income. Bright and with an early interest in politics, Erdoğan didn't join any establish party but rather became the head of the youth organisation the Islamist Party of National Salvation. Known as "Akincilar" they linked up with the fascist organisation Grey Wolves to agitate against left-wing youth organisations. Their opponents, the left, also flirted with the moustached "Kabadayi" culture. For them, however, the uncle embodied the social revolutionary, who challenged the land-owning elites.

The Kurdish movement also loved the rough charm of "Kabadayi". To this day, their controversial leader is Abdullah Öcalan, who just as much the authentic "uncle" figure as Erdoğan. But in contrast to his competitors, Erdoğan has an ace up his sleeve: he is a devout Muslim. He uses his faith, and those who feel oppressed in the Atatürk Republic, to cleverly advance his political career. His self-image and demeanour are those of a man who keeps his word. Those dealing with him quickly realize that Erdoğan always means what he says. Those qualities go down well with the voters. Yes, he is brutal, but after all, life is tough.

The "Kabadayi 2.0" is no longer about being close to the population. The uncle who was once a popular neighbourhood figure has long since grown into a terminator in the supposed cultural struggle against a Western-oriented elite. In fact, Erdoğan's now 15-year reign has unleashed social upheavals that his constituents thank him for; women wearing headscarves are no longer discriminated against; Anatolia's farmers are doing better than ever. Meanwhile, the omnipotence of Istanbul's capital is broken, as is that of the Western-style military. At the same time, the days are long past when Erdoğan and his followers can rail against "those up there". On the contrary, "up there" now refers to him and his people.

In his large presidential palace, Erdoğan's Kabadayi behaviour degenerates into meaningless, inhuman brutality. He has no choice but to transform the whole of Turkey into his home district Kasimpasa. He tirelessly stylizes himself and the whole country as a victim of a reckless world. "The world is bigger than five" is Erdoğan's favourite saying, referring to the unjust power relations in the UN Security Council. He says the U.S. supports terrorists. Talking about the E.U. he says, that their words go into one ear and out of another. In good Kabadayi fashion, Erdoğan has, until recently, never side-stepped any altercation. But it was in Vladimir Putin that he found his true teacher. After Turkey shot down a Russian jet at the end of 2015, Putin stopped the flow of Russian tourists to Antalya, banning Turkish imports and contracts with construction companies. Erdoğan gave in a few months later. After all, as the Anatolian folk saying suggests: "Bükemedigin eli öp", or kiss the hand which you can't force.

When implusive hot-headed populists like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spark hero-worship hormones in their fans, where does that leave Angela Merkel? Is she an anti-hero? Or is she, with her aura of country-bumpkin friendliness, a superwoman defending German interests?

Merkel doesn't slot into any pigeonholes. As a woman in the Christian Democractic Union (CDU) which was thoroughly coloured by Helmut Kohl, she certainly faced big challenges: The initially extreme power struggle with Bavaria's Edmund Stoiber, her tactical cutting-off of her party colleague Friedrich Merz. In any case, Merkel steered her course without batting an eyelid.

The German chancellor, who is now in her fourth legislative term, has, in the opinion of most commentators, never really done anything out of the ordinary. Although she may have been called the "heroine of the refugees", she did not really become a German heroine. The image of a physicist, who observes life as if she is analysing vectors in an equation, best describes Merkel. A successful scientist who knows that to put herself on the side of certain social groups means strengthening their vectors in the equation. That, she knows, would shift the balance, creating outcomes which are often hard to predict.

As a result the Chancellor doesn't support anyone. That is not unfriendly, but it is also certainly not heart warming. It is easy to imagine how Merkel stands at her Chancellery window pondering logical strategies to underpin her next political moves. Merkel is known for her "steady hand" in politics. For that reason, many even view Merkel as a passive politician who simply waits out every crisis. But perhaps she is more of a mastermind, someone who knows how to perfectly calculate social equations without us noticing. But Merkel can also annoy us, particularly women, many of whom expected more from the world's long-standing most powerful woman. She is no icon for equality or for the emancipation of young millennials. Merkel, the first woman in German history who managed to climb to the top, is not the type who will pen a bestseller entitled "The Art of Governance" after her chancellorship.

Merkel, despite all the superlatives boils down to day-to-day politics. For young Germans it has become quite normal to have a female chancellor. A woman who also tells men where to go, who wins elections, sometimes makes mistakes and likes to cook potato stew. Only once did the north-eastern German physicist give free rein to her feelings and allow her protestant ethics to overrule her political calculation. In the summer of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees made their way to Europe, Merkel let her humanity shine: "We can do it!" Merkel rose to the role of global heroine Olympus with this soft, almost defiant phrase. From Kabul to Toronto, praise rained on the German Chancellor.

However, Merkel's crash in the course of the refugee debate was in proportion to her steep climb. In the mean time she has shifted her position on refugees. In her most recent policy statement she self-critically stated that her hope had been "false and naive". Merkel, the number one East German, was, was already known as bad ideologue in her former home, the GDR. In her PhD she achieved a "very good" in physics but in her studies of Marxism and Leninism, she just scored "sufficient". Merkel is not a heroine like Joan of Arc, who died for her beliefs. In fact Merkel may be a completely postmodernist kind of heroine - one who sets herself a grim and unsolvable equation and thus keeps her eye on all the forces and vectors at work in the country, making sure that, despite the huge upheavals, nothing falls out of balance.

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