Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Turkey, Hitchens & Maher

Funny how events on the other side of the globe change your plans. Yesterday I wrote a light-hearted piece which I hoped would see the light this afternoon. Then the news changed my plans and over at TW&TW I've written a very quick piece about Turkey shooting down the Russian jet.

In contrast to that piece, I'm again typing this straight to the blog. No editing. No polishing. But given a couple of hours extra thought, I'm still shocked at what Turkey has done. Whatever way you look at the mess of the Middle East, you realise that so much of it runs across national borders and into ancient ethnic feuds. Turkey seems to be facing huge problems. It has to decide on which bank of the Bosporus its loyalties lie. I can't imagine many people in NATO feel reassured about today's rash act. The one fault in having a common defense is the assumption that other nations share your values. I'm not entirely sure what values Turkey has at the moment under President Erdo─čan. This is the guy who was jailing cartoonists who dared to criticise him.

'Sharing values' reminds me that last night I watched a couple of very old episodes of Real Time with Bill Maher. Real Time is probably my favourite TV show because the UK has nothing like it. Nothing has the passion but also the insight. It's unafraid of being intelligent but also confused, which is the perfect starting place for debate. It's sometimes outrageously angry and a perfect example was the second episode I watched from the mid 2000s. Christopher Hitchens was one of the guests and there was a wonderful moment he turned to the audience and flipped them the bird, as they say in America. He seemed to love deliberately agitating the audience over their views towards Middle East. Hitchens, you might remember, was firmly in favour of the war.

Sadly, Hitchens is no longer with us. We still have the war. Everything we see today grew out of the decisions we made back then but I try to understand why Hitchens was so wrong. And it does seem to me that he was largely wrong. In many respect, his instincts were correct. Yet, on reflection, it's Bill Maher who seemed to be the prophet, warning us that we had no place in the Middle East. Hitchens was driven, I guess, by a greater sense of moral outrage. He couched his arguments in the terrors of the Saddam regime. He talked about liberating people.

Where he went wrong, I guess, was in having too much hope for humanity and underplaying the malevolent force of religion. I don't suppose it's much of a surprise that it was his atheism that first attracted me to read Hitchens. Few writers have written as powerfully about the faults of religion but Hitchens was far too rational. He trusted that people given freedom would choose democracy. The fact is that rationality is something that can't be imposed and it can't always be taught. As Turkey today proved: sometimes people just make extremely dumb choices.

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