Saturday, July 30, 2011

Personal Geography

I've been thinking about Saul Steinberg's famous 1976 New Yorker cover showing a narrow, New York-centric view of the United States, which consists of Manhattan, with some other vaguely imagined places in the distance. The joke is that New Yorkers have a rather skewed sense of their own importance.

I think it's funny, even as a former New Yorker, but in reality, the same myopia exists for the part of the country that's missing from the middle of Steinberg's map: the "heartland," the "real America," the part that isn't, presumably, within easy driving distance of an ocean. The irony inherent in people in the center calling themselves the "real America," though, is that the majority of Americans live on the coasts.

Somehow or other, 53 percent of Americans aren't real.

If New Yorkers are myopic, Kansans are blind.

Stereotypes aside, we all have our own personal geographies. The places we've lived have sharp details; the places we've been are a little hazier. Places we've read about, seen on the news or in movies, exist somewhere in our brains, but barely.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York are real cities to me. They aren't just filled with landmarks, but with supermarkets, libraries, and people. Rome and Florence, where I've been three times over many years (and, maybe equally important, hundreds, if not thousands, of times through books and art classes), are like a collection of snapshots.

Cairo? Camels and pyramids pop into my head, along with men wearing fezzes. I'm almost positive there are neither camels nor pyramids in Cairo, and that almost no one wears a fez, but all that I've got to go on are clichés in my head from old movies and fuzzy memories of pictures in elementary school geography books. They've been updated a bit by more recent images in the news, but adding tanks to the the mental image of camels doesn't improve things much.

Not a fez in sight, either.

And then there are the places that are almost theoretical. I vaguely know that there is a place called The Maldives, but I haven't the vaguest idea where they are or what they look like. I'm not even sure if I should refer to the place in the singular or the plural? Is it The Maldives or are they The Maldives? Does anything happen there? Has anything ever happened there? Surely it must have a history, a people, a government, an ecosystem, some distinguishing characteristics -- but for me, beyond its name, it doesn't exist at all. I didn't know Grenada existed until Ronald Reagan invaded it in 1983. And now all I know about it is that Ronald Reagan invaded it in 1983.

All of this started running through my brain after I read Anthony Shadid's article in today's New York Times on the sudden resignation of most of Turkey's military command. The article does a good job of explaining the importance of the event in terms of both Turkey's current politics and its history. The Turkish military has pretty much run the country for most of its modern history, partly by casting itself as the guardians of secularism. That era appears to be over.

But it started me thinking about how little I know about Turkey, and how much more I would like to know. This history is interesting in itself, and the historical tension between religion and secularism, and military and civilian control, seems directly relevant to what's happening in Egypt right now, where the military, which, less then six months ago, seemed to be the defender of the revolution, may now be making its control permanent.

I think most of us "know" history the way we know geography -- events in our post-childhood lifetimes are relatively clear, events we've heard about from older people who lived through them a little blurrier, and other than that we have vaguely remembered bits and pieces from textbooks and news stories, mixed with a lot of ahistorical stuff from television and movies, that leaves huge gaps in our knowledge.

The older you get, the more "history" you've experienced. Unfortunately, the older you get the more time you've had to fill your head with fake movie history, as well. It's hard to separate the true from the faux.

I thought, what do I know about Turkey?

1. It shares a border with Greece, and one with Iraq.

2. The capital is Ankara. Not Istanbul. (Not Constantinople).

3. It was the center of the Ottoman Empire, which started sometime in the middle ages and ended sometime around the end of World War I. I know it was important, but I don't know why. I don't know how it came to be, or what brought it to an end. It's one of those things in history that I think a reasonably well-educated person ought to know, but I don't. I "know" it the way I know that there was a War of the Roses and a War of Jenkin's Ear -- by name, but with few, if any details attached.

4. In the early 20th century, the Turks committed genocide against Armenians. The Turks still don't admit this, but no one else doubts it. Hitler took it as proof that extermination of a people is something history doesn't long remember.

5. Ataturk was the first leader of "modern" Turkey, sometime after World War I. He was known as a "reformer," which I think simply means that he tried to get Turkey to be more "Western" and secular in outlook (and I vaguely remember that one of the "reforms" was encouraging Turks to wear Western hats, not fezzes; I think there was actually a "Hat Law." Apparently, he did not think fezzes were cool).

When I learned about Ataturk in high school, he seemed to be a hero, at least to the people who wrote my World History textbook, but looking back, I remember the Shah of Iran being described in much the same way (only without the fez antipathy). It's hard to judge how much that you learned in high school is true. An awful lot of what you learn in high school turns out to be nonsense.

6. Through much of my lifetime, Turkey seemed to have one military coup after another.

7. Through much much of my lifetime, Turkey has had a lousy human rights record, particularly the oppression -- or more accurately, imprisonment and torture -- of its Kurdish minority.

8. Several years ago, Turkey chose a prime minister -- Erdogan -- from a conservative, somewhat religious party. That seemed to freak some people out at the time -- what would happen to the secularist tradition Ataturk had established? -- but now Turkey is more commonly viewed as a model for the region.

It seems I know I know eight things about Turkey, which is not very much.

I'm not sure exactly what the point of this post is. I think it is not really about Turkey, or history, or geography. It's about learning. Sometimes, when you want to know more about something, the first step is figuring out what you know, and what you don't. And you need to give yourself a chance to see that there are things you think you know that are completely wrong.

If you get too sure of what you know, without examining it, you end up sounding like this:

One reason to study history is to learn from the past.

Another is to not sound like Sarah Palin.

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