Show Hide image

Laurie Penny: Lessons from the Pope Protest

Now the Pope has gone home, the left needs to rediscover the courage of its convictions.

The atmosphere amongst the liberal left in the aftermath of the Pope's state visit to Britain calls to mind the uncomfortable eye-avoidance that takes place after someone suddenly turns the lights on at an orgy. Yes, we had a lot of fun, and we probably got rather carried away, but we're not overly keen to discuss it the next morning and we might well hesitate before leaping into any more messy entanglements with gay rights, feminism and anti-state activism.

The protest itself was a joyful chorus of self-congratulatory liberal paralysis. As bagfuls of naughty blown-up condoms floated up into an azure Piccadilly sky, central London thundered with the sound of twenty thousand broadly centre-left Britons failing to make up their minds about why they were there. Some of the printed-out slogans bemoaned the extra public expense of lugging the Popemobile around the country; some complained about homophobia, others about the oppression of women, but never too impolitely. There was, in fact, a horrific delicacy about this collective mumble, as if to make any real, overarching complaint about regressive state and religious indoctrination would be, well, a little tasteless.
'It's fantastic that there's a protest," said queer theorist James Butler, who I met in the crowd, "but it's telling that the only thing being chanted with any enthusiasm is 'Pope Go Home!' That sentiment seems less about creating real change than registering a formal objection while retaining the status quo."


Well, the Pope has now gone home, as he was always planning to. Hurrah. Well done us. Unfortunately, homophobia, misogyny, bigotry, intolerance and abuse have not gone home with the Pope.

The impulse towards egalitarianism and collective rationality that nominally brought twenty thousand liberals to Piccadilly last week should not now be permitted to disperse like incense in an empty church. It's vital that the left remembers that for many of us, there was more to this demonstration than the chance to stand around central London wearing pink paper mitres and making unhelpful jokes about men in dresses.
Even more dispiriting than the silly-hat brigade was the peevish fixation, by way of speeches, slogans and placards, on the cost of the Papal visit. Even Peter Tatchell and the Secular Society chose to focus attention on the twelve million pound bill to the state, in this new age of austerity, seemingly in order to rally the disparate strands of popular anti-papism into one miserly chorus of public annoyance.

This type of shoddy reasoning panders entirely to the clunky conservative line on the necessity of public sector cuts, and implies that, in this instance, liberal Britain would have been entirely happy to host the anointed head of an organisation which has covered up institutional child-rape, opposed women's rights and promoted homophobia across the globe if only it hadn't been so jolly expensive.

Packaging our ideology in the language of financial prudence is a dangerous move for the left, not only because it allows the conservative right to set the agenda, but because meaningful social change is rarely part of any state's five-year budget. Consider the declaration this week by Ben Summerskill, head of LGB campaigning group Stonewall, that his organisation plans to abandon its lobby for marriage equality for homosexuals - because it would be too expensive for the government to implement.

Many LGBT activists justly make the case that the right to form family units of which Iain Duncan Smith would approve should not be the primary focus of the queer movement when homophobic attacks and murders are still taking place up and down the country. Nonetheless, equal legal recognition within a flawed system is an important first step for liberation movements, and I for one will march until my feet bleed for the right of gay and bisexual men and women to bugger up their lives just as frivolously as straight couples. Moreover, being the public face of safe, unthreatening homosexuality is Stonewall's job - but nothing in that job description includes the caveat: "we'd like our human rights, but only if you're absolutely sure you can afford to splash out on us."

It's worth remembering the most positive social revolutions in history, large and small, have all come at cost to the state. Britain, after all, couldn't really afford to stop trading in slaves. We couldn't afford votes for women, or universal suffrage. We certainly couldn't afford to institute a welfare state and universal healthcare just after a world war that left our national deficit at several times the level it is today. Those battles were fought and won because a few brave social innovators believed that justice and progress were more important than balancing the books.

Radical, useful social change does not wait around for those in power to decide that they can afford it. It does not shrink from genuine confrontation to stand at the sidelines sniping about funny hats and fancy frocks. Radical, useful social change is always uncomfortable, it's always expensive, and it always involves an element of personal risk for those who take up the banner. The left needs to stop pandering to conservative parochialism and remember the courage of its convictions.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue