Early Summer

Distracted by a steady stream of visitors and a number of game changing events I can only apologise for the late arrival of this month’s post. So to you concerned darlings who wondered where I was – I am not dead, in prison or off trekking in some distant jungle again – I have been here in Turkey all the time slowly preparing myself for what looks like it could be a big summer of change.

I finally ordered my canal boat for delivery early next month. Originally I was going to order something like the boat my brother ordered last year. Indeed, at one time I even suggested my specification would be nothing more detailed than “follow his 50 foot by 7 foot boat.” I should explain that canal living in the UK has sailed quietly along seemingly uninterested in anything as radical as decimalisation so nearly everything is referred to in feet and inches. This meant a certain amount a clawing back remembered fragments of the imperial measurement system, which we were all persuaded to forget as kids back in the 1970’s. Anyway, in the intervening months I have slowly persuaded myself by degree’s that a boat that size would be too small for myself and the cat to potentially live in one day. As a consequence it will now be a 57 foot by 11 foot (17.3 x 3.3 metres) wide boat that will be lowered into the water at Watford in a few weeks time. That is the easy part. The boat is only a sailaway, which means it is just a steel shell with an engine. The hard part will be the fitting out by myself and my brother. My own limited experience of all things nautical and DIY will thankfully be offset by his sound level of knowledge and skills but I will still make a willing labourer.

Craned in boat By Charlton Lay

Here in Turkey summer seems to have come earlier than normal. I usually gauge the season by what I see on my daily walk. Tortoise numbers peaked last week, 2 weeks early after I sighted 7 in half an hour and my route had to change completely for a while after I realised the mating season for the deadly Ottoman viper had also arrived early. Another thing that arrived shockingly early here is election season after the President decided to call a general election for June the 24th. The fact this is almost a year and a half early has led many commentators to suggest that it is a panic move because of the deteriorating state of the Turkish economy, which will almost certainly be in a worse condition by the time the election was due in late 2019.

A quick look at the numbers may support this view i.e a full lira drop in value to the pound in less than a month from 5.55 on April 30th to 6.55 to sterling today. Also growing oil prices and a current account deficit that has grown to $16 billion for the first quarter of 2018, a shortfall that is almost double what it was a year ago. This has seemingly been caused by a big drop in foreign investment into Turkey something that continues to be exacerbated by Turkey’s active foreign policy such as its recent military interventions in Syria and changes in economic policy, which have caused high inflation in an economy already overheated by relatively low borrowing costs. A visit to the local market or shops will bear this out, with some items in particular 30% to 40% more expensive than they were just a year ago. Add to this the fact that a high proportion of my Turkish friends tell my they are struggling with debt after being bombarded for years with offers of bank loans, mortgages and credit cards and things begin to look a little more bleak.

All of the above said, this is still my home and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Yes I have taken measures to reduce my exposure to a weakening currency but I will still live here after the election and continue to contribute to the economy with my taxes. Quite where the country will head politically after an election that will hand any president vast new sweeping powers taken from Turkey’s parliament is anyone’s guess.

Turkeys Erdogan

It will be a shame if Turkey becomes an even more authoritarian set up than the one we have watched evolve since 2011. By anyone’s measure the rule of law and things like freedom of speech or expression have continued to be eroded to the point that Turkey now sits at the top of the list for more writers and journalists languishing in jail. It is a fact there are more incarcerated here than the next two countries on that list (China and Egypt) put together. This is not a statistic to be proud of. As a writer myself, who once enjoyed the freedom to write pretty much anything I wanted, I have witnessed at first hand this tightening and narrowing of things you can and can’t express, which has created an atmosphere of insidious self censorship to the point that you almost end up writing in code, if you are brave/ foolish enough to discuss politics but want to avoid falling foul of the ever lengthening list of things you can and can’t say without risking arrest. Despite these truths I am one of the dwindling few who still hold onto a hope that the next phase in Turkey’s development will see an effort to actively heal the deep divisions that have opened up in this country so we can somehow find a way back to a place where other opinions and beliefs are not always regarded as threats but are, once again, actively tolerated and encouraged.

One way or another there is a lot happening this summer. Many commentators believe Turkey will change forever on the 24th June. But for the sake of this deeply polarised society I really hope it marks a chance for positive change. If not… then unlike most people here – I still have the option to leave the country. So who really knows; by this time next year maybe I will reluctantly have to say goodbye to my home of 17 years and may well end up living on that new boat I’m building somewhere on the river Thames.


Beware Our Personal Social Media Ghettoes

What things shape who we are? Our family is a good starting point unless you are unlucky enough to not have one. Although that statement in itself and the use of the word unlucky may annoy someone who has negative thoughts towards their family. Our genes, of course come from our family whether we like them or not and go a long way to determining who we are – male, female, good looking, plain, ugly, black, white and countless other things including tolerance for alcohol, sexual persuasion, and athletic ability etc… etc… although those last two also rely to a certain extent on your upbringing and other external factors from the “Nurture v Nature” debate which is far too complex to even paraphrase in this short post.

Abstract image of face with baseball cap
Photo by Surian Soosay

Many things make us who we are and build a sense of who we might become over time as we establish our own personal value system – good or bad. But these things are like sand and shift as our experiences recalibrate our minds to suit our environment and life stages. We often feel more freedom and openness to new ideas when we are young and sample what’s on offer like standing in front of an overstocked breakfast buffet with an empty plate. So by the time we move into our 30’s and 40’s we pretty much know what we do and don’t like; and if that runs counter to the values of our family or extended social circle we have usually learnt from the friction of experience to keep some opinions or impulses to ourselves. Until very recently the burgeoning pressure to conform to survive and perhaps prosper more comfortably within the society we choose to live in often meant that we went along with whatever our mainstream media and news outlets told us and trusted them to exercise a degree of integrity in exchange for our loyalty. Yes we accepted that there were certain leanings i.e: that the Guardian in the UK is left leaning in its views; the Independent holds the middle ground and the Daily Mail and the Telegraph lean ever more to the right to the point of pushing a casual xenophobia that is attractive to a high percentage of their aging readership.

The TV channels were similarly predictable particularly the BBC, which once tried hard to tread an impartial, middle ground because it is funded by a licence fee that everyone with a TV is legally obliged to pay. However, after some of the broadcasters key positions were filled by Conservative party cheerleaders some Brexit promoting MPs launched a noisy campaign questioning the institutions loyalty. For a while any news item that seemed even vaguely in favour of the ‘Remain’ (in the EU) side of the argument was labelled as almost treasonous. This could be regarded as laughable if not for the fact that the BBC, now far too often appears to be – despite its constitution expressly forbidding it – being used as a potent political mouth piece by the UK’s fragile minority government.

The beebs biase
Credit: Independent.co.uk

Things have changed and continue to change in the way we get the news and views that help us shape our opinions. It is hard to believe that social media only emerged in the last decade. The likes of Twitter and Facebook slipped into our consciousness almost undetected and in the beginning were treated with a degree of suspicion as nothing more than self indulgence or whimsy and the domain of computer geeks and advertisers. However, with the parallel emergence of a culture mesmerised by celebrity and the strange phenomenon of people becoming famous for simply being famous it was only a matter of time before people, who too often lived vicariously through soap opera characters would do the same with social media. Today people seem far less interested in the art of conversation or face to face debate and much more interested in how many likes or re-tweets they may get for a photo of their cat or breakfast or some flogged to death piece of advice or life hack cut and pasted from someone else’s account. Far too many people now equate personal validation with the number of friends or followers they acquire to the point that likes or re-tweets have become a kind of currency that affects the sense of well being or self-worth of far too many people. So is it any wonder that advertisers, pressure groups, politicians and governments have all fully embraced social media as a tool to not only make money but to also shape, shift or sometimes totally distort public opinion.

Fake news has always been around – when was the last time anyone trusted anything emanating from the Kremlin, especially a tweet saying: “we did not…” bomb that hospital in Syria, or deploy a military grade nerve agent – only they posses – on the streets of an English town. In the old days… pre 2017 when Fake News which seemed to come from nowhere was named the word or the year, we called these things what they are: lies or distortions. Of course this has not stopped earlier facts and events being retrospectively referred to as fake news. Of note in my own media universe were two huge events from 2016. The UK Brexit vote was only possible because of an avalanche of lies and distorted facts used to confuse, antagonise and sow fear for the mostly aging British public whose leave votes where crucial in triggering the economic catastrophe that is now playing out. That was nearly all fake news fed by politicians and right wing newspaper barons who are all set to gain financially or climb the greasy pole of political power. However, the other huge event of 2016 was the shock election of the cartoonishly incompetent and corrupt Donald Trump as the 45th President of America.

Poor Donald Trump
Credit: Neverrepublican.com

Trump came to power on the back of a tsunami of misinformation and falsehoods which were enhanced by the direct manipulation of the election process by Russia and other foreign supporters. This is not fake news as Trump has always claimed; but solid fact corroborated by the FBI the CIA and the secret services of many of America’s allies. So the world must wait for the Mueller Enquiry to deliver its verdict and the spanking Republicans are due to get in the mid-term elections before he and what remains of his fractured White House begin their slide from power. In the mean time he will continue to use the phrase fake news, almost on a daily basis to counter any complaints or criticism of his disastrous presidency. This increasingly paranoid behaviour feeds into the us against them narrative that he engendered for his base supporters from the very beginning, who comfort themselves with distractions, the deliberate omissions or downright lies spun out by staunchly Trump supporting outlets such as Fox News. It seems no matter how many new lows he sinks to with his divisive and at times seemingly unhinged behaviour his base continues to ignore facts in favour of clinging to the empty sound bite promises he made during his campaign: something vague about making America great again based on the protectionism of dead or dying industries and a metaphoric return to the values of the 1950’s where white people enjoyed prosperity while conveniently ignoring the institutional harassment of women or the deep injustice suffered by African Americans.

More than 60 years on race is still an issue that is never far from the surface in most parts of the world. In the UK race in the form of a fear of migrants – despite the tiny numbers who actually reach British shores – was used to great affect by the leave campaign in the Brexit campaign. However, despite most commentators and economists agreeing that a hard Brexit will be a train wreck for the UK economy and deeply divide society for years to come if you are a Brexit supporter who is active on social media and/or form opinions based on what you read in the news papers that bankrolled the leave vote you may still think that the huge act of national self harm that is Brexit is still worth the pain. It is no surprise that people will be drawn to news channels that echo their own views. However, what is little appreciated is how most of us have slowly but surely done the same with the messages we hear and share on social media. Yes to a certain degree companies such as facebook and twitter feed us news stories and other facts (fake or real) based on algorithms of our online behaviour. But by far the biggest influence on what we read comes from the people we decide to follow.

In these personal social media ghettoes we eventually build for ourselves we become increasingly prone to being less tolerant, mainly because few people are able to demand that we are more politically correct with our choices. Beyond the cute cat videos we tend to follow people we think are like us. But if we discover that they are not like us or they share an opposite political or ethical point of view we tend to unfollow/unfriend them or at the very least mute their messages. Until one day we realise with some self satisfaction that everyone seems to be singing the same tune that we sing and the news and information we receive on social media or via the news channels we watch mostly supports our opinions and values. Indeed, we sometimes become so fickle that it gets harder to understand how anyone can possibly justify having a diametrically opposite opinion to ourselves in anything. Armando Iannucci put it like this a few months ago:

“There’s this mob rule taking place on social media which is a disturbing thing to see. Social media can be great, especially for engaging people and getting a message out there. The other side is, if anyone says something different to you, rather than engage with them you just cut them off. Democracy is about different opinions coming together, trying to hammer out something that appeals to the most people. Today, if you say something I disagree with, I can block you. That’s how democracy breaks down.”

The anti democratic behaviour engendered by these news and information ghettoes that we create for ourselves plays not only into the hands of political extremist but also a growing proportion of governments of the far right or left with dictatorial tendencies. These people too often only thrive by oppressing minorities or creating a constant sense of crisis or conflict within their countries. In such situations the voices of reason and objectivity are far too often attacked by government controlled media who are quick to label it as unpatriotic or even treasonous.

Surreal Monkeys
Credit: Javier Martinez

All evidence points to social media having more of an impact in our lives in the years to come. So be careful not to lock yourself into your own personal social media ghetto. Yes you are bound to favour the messages and the voices supporting the things you believe in, but also try to tolerate at least a small proportion of people who hold different views to your own. I estimate 15% of the people I follow on Twitter are pro Brexit, pro Trump or are the voices of totalitarians or their sympathisers. Yes you will often see something that triggers your impulse to block that voice, but if you resist it you will at least become more informed and who knows, one day you may moderate or even change some of your own views. But if nothing else – you will at the very least get a better appreciation of the counter arguments or other points of view so that you can articulately challenge or support some of the important issues of our time with facts and not fake news.