“We are medical doctors. We are familiar with people’s different emotional states. We are anxious about the emotional state of Prime Minister Erdogan. We are seriously concerned for him, for his close circle, and for our country. We would like to share our concern.”
So ends a plaintive press release published by the Turkish Medical Doctors Association in March of this year, which I believe sets a new benchmark for understanding postmodern authoritarianism. We have read plenty about Turkey’s roll-up of civil liberties, its crackdown on dissent, and its record-setting imprisonment of journalists, stories which all hover above the megalomaniacal, high-handed style of its current premier. But now things have reached the stage where serious people must be given to wonder if America’s largest NATO’s ally is not being governed by a man whose tether to reality has completely frayed. By that I do not mean that he’s gone slightly batty or a bit “weird” or even Late Thatcher oh-dear worrisome: I mean that he is just shy of declaring himself a poached egg.
The evidence that Recep Tayyip Erdogan requires urgent head-rest seems compelling and persuasive. A tipping point of sorts was reached last week. Following a mining disaster in the city of Soma which killed 301 people – the worst of its kind in Turkish history – Erdogan was recorded assaulting a protestor, Taner Kurucan, in a supermarket. Still under dispute is whether Erdogan referred to Kurucan as “Israeli semen” or taunted him with, “Why are you running away? You were calling on me to resign.” Kurucan has changed his recounting of the incident more than once, owing, he says, to intimidation from city authorities. But my friend Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish journalist, has watched the footage of the incident “almost a hundred times” and told me that although the phonemes for the two alleged quotes may be similar (everyone in Turkey really ought to write out their job resignations on paper rather than pronounce them to their bosses), it does appear that Erdogan categorized a citizen of his own country as the seed of Jerusalem.
The fact that there is widespread domestic and international speculation that the leader of Europe’s sixth largest economy could be capable of referring to a protestor as Jewish ejaculate (and I think we can be fairly sure that Erdogan did not have Druze or Israeli-Arab reproductive material in mind) right before socking him one would seem to me the real story. Or rather it would have, were the precedents for this sort of behavior absent instead of manifold.
In September 2013, while touring the headquarters of Rovio in Finland, Erdogan interrupted a presentation about a popular video game put out by the company by inquiring, “Why are these birds angry? Does it not have a negative effect on children?” He was assured by Rovio’s CEO that children did not suffer adverse side effects from flinging scowling digital fowl at sinister egg-snatching pigs in hardhats.
In January of this year, Erdogan blamed the “interest-rate lobby” – a contingent he had also blamed for the Gezi protests themselves – for trying to straightjacket Turkey’s previously robust economic growth. “We won't let the interest-rate lobby work in comfort,” he threatened. Whom, exactly, he had in mind here the reader is welcome to guess at. But the least that can be said is that this is clearly a man deeply attuned to “lobbies.” Erdogan sees them absolutely everywhere and in everything to do with whatever ails Turkey. Most are unregistered. In February, for instance, he declared of those mocking or criticizing him online: “The robot lobby that they set up on social media hits with tweets. They tell them to increase the number of tweets.” Twitter’s logo, it may have occurred to him, is of a bird in an inscrutable state of agitation. Beware the feathered nest of the deep state.
Even Erdogan’s Islamist rival, the Pennsylvania-based scholar Fethullah Gülen, is a lobbyist rather than the head of a sociopolitical movement similar to that of Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party. “They prepared a flawless scenario,” Erdogan once explained. “The preacher’s lobby would hit through the police and judiciary. The media lobby would hit with headlines and broadcasts. The interest rate lobby would make a fuss that the economy was deteriorating. The international lobby would hit by condemning and criticizing.” Thus did he try to account for the exposure of a massive network of state corruption implicating high-ranking Turkish officials, including himself.
March is a month synonymous in literature with political conspiracy. It was also clearly Tayyip’s most troubled. While speaking before a rally commemorating his 12th year in office, he whipped up a crowd to boo the family of Berkin Elvan. This was the 15 year-old boy who was shot in the head by a tear gas canister during the Gezi Park protests and who had succumbed two days earlier after being in a coma for nine months. Erdogan referred to Elvan as having been “drawn in by terror organizations.” The evidence? The boy had marbles in his pocket when he was brought to hospital, and the fact that the Elvan’s father deposited marbles, which Erdogan said were in fact iron balls, in his son’s coffin was now further proof of the entire family’s subversive anti-state ideology. “Under normal circumstances,” the Turkish Medical Doctors Association noted politely, “a ‘normal’ person would never declare a 15-year-old child, who was shot in the head by a gas canister while going to buy bread, to be a terrorist,” nor would he “distort the truth by saying that the marbles buried in Berkin’s grave were iron balls.”
This was also when Erdogan for a short time defeated one of his dreaded lobbies. “We now have a court order,” he announced. “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” (Strangely, it was the “international community” and not the “international lobby” now doing the devil’s work in this instance.) He similarly threatened to shut down Facebook, which may have been worth it just to see him attempt a similar construction to the one with which he dismissed the temporarily banned microblogging platform: “Twitter, mwitter!” (A Turkish court overruled Erdogan’s ban.)
If language is anything to go by, Erdogan’s mental health is in a rapid state of free fall. Just 10 days ago, before the semen-punch episode, he promised to root out Gülenists who may be lurking in Turkey’s judiciary and police force by saying that in order to “sterilize this dirty water that contaminated the milk, we will either boil or molecularize it,” marking the first time in history that pasteurization has been deployed as a metaphor for counterintelligence. But Erdogan only improved on his Strangelovian imagery from there: “If changing the positions for those [officials] committing treason is called a ‘witch-hunt,’ then yes, we perform a ‘witch-hunt.’” He also enlisted other political officials to participate in this metaphor which connotes hysterical, paranoid, and unjust persecution and has done so since 17th-century Salem.
Several years ago, in the course of trying to explain Erdogan’s infamous walk-out at the Davos summit following his indictment of Israeli President Shimon Peres as a geriatric killer of children, Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas drew an astute parallel with another authoritarian world leader who has likewise come in for suspicion that the attic of his mind may be in disarray: Vladimir Putin. “But the Turkish premier’s angry outbursts are of course very different from Putin’s silent, calculating steps to revive the Russian empire,” Aydintasbas wrote in Forbes in 2009, long before the latest outburstscould be tallied and a few years before Putin switched off the mute button on his revival of the Russian empire.
There are striking similarities between Erdogan and Putin’s management style and their in contempt for opposition, real or perceived. But Erdogan’s Semitic spunk tirade notwithstanding, the Russian president suffers from a much more obvious psychological hang-up, judging from his own demotic thought-pictures. In 1999, Putin infamously vowed to kill terrorists in the “outhouse.” Not long thereafter, he invited a reporter to come to Moscow and get circumcised after that reporter had asked him a tough question about Chechnya. Putin thought that the white ribbons worn by anti-Kremlin protestors in 2011 were condoms. More recently, in justifying Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he said that the West had created this precedent with NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. But oh, how he said it: “They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree, and now they are outraged!” was the official Kremlin translation. And yet, as Russian journalist Masha Gessen pointed out in Slate, “The expression Putin used, however, was ‘vsekh nagnuli,’ street slang for having had nonconsensual anal sex with everybody, rather than for having everybody agree.” (That there is a distinction between democratic and dictatorial forms of group sodomy is an admirable feature of the language of Tolstoy and Nabokov. It also inspires hope for luckless Russia.)
So I think we can conclude that the difference between the Turkish and Russian leaders is this: Erdogan is someone you can see eventually keeping his urine in mason jars and instructing the furniture in one of his many mansions to attend the UN General Assembly in his stead, while Putin is someone whose web browser history you should never, under any circumstances, wish to see.