Does everything have to be black and white?

Does everything have to be black and white?

13:09 10 January in ARTICLES, In English, PUBLICATIONS

Todays ZamanToday’s Zaman | 10 January, 2010


Mehmet Öğütçü | LONDON – The dividing lines are getting ever sharper in today’s Turkey in almost every part of life, be it politics, business, sports or culture.Shared values, a common vision and a sense of societal coherence are increasingly being blurred and challenged. We, as individuals, have been forced to make clear-cut choices, just like George W. Bush once said on the war against terror: “You are either with us or against us.” This is not good. It is, indeed, extremely disturbing.

Let’s not box ourselves into rigid ‘isms’

Looking back, I was no different in my views against the risk of polarization in the pre-1980 era of my student days when the skirmishes between so-called rightists and leftists were at their peak, claiming dozens of lives in street clashes or assassinations every day. We would simply be beaten in the open by militants for allegedly belonging to this or that political persuasion. People were compelled, often at gunpoint, to choose sides between the strictly polarized camps. Being neutral or staying true to your own beliefs was not an option at all.

I never liked being put into a black-and-white box against my will. Adoring the diversity of colors, lifestyles and ideas, I have shied away from sticking or belonging to one side all my life. At one point, as a young daydreamer in the late 1970s, when I was fed up with the tyranny of “isms” imposed upon our lives, I dreamt of forging a utopian common umbrella under which all political, religious and ethnic groups and their world views could be accommodated.

Is there a Third Way?

In my later years at the London School of Economics (LSE) back in mid-1980s, my professor, Anthony Giddens, inspired me to consider the virtues of a Third Way, which essentially rejects top-down socialism as it also rejects traditional neo-liberalism, which he viewed as something different and distinct from liberal capitalism.

The Third Way seemed to me to be in favor of growth, entrepreneurship, enterprise and wealth creation, but also in favor of greater social justice, seeing the state as playing a major role in bringing this about. Yet, I realized that the policies of the Third Way are not easy to implement and in fact differed considerably in Europe and America, where it refers to significantly more right-wing and laissez-faire policies than in Europe.

Whatever the reason, I do not feel comfortable being subjected to the rigors of strong association with groups or cliques, while fully understanding the importance of having a sense of belonging to family, friends, colleagues, your company, soccer team and nation.

But the perennial philosophical questions that bedevil our minds are: Where do we really belong? What makes us feel less like we belong? What makes us feel more like we belong? To my mind, it is very simple: You belong where YOU say you belong! The decision about whether you belong with others is your decision, not theirs.

Where do we belong?

True, as you might guess from the preceding lines, I seem to have developed a weak sense of belonging outside of my close circle. For example, although I always feel proud of the schools I graduated from, particularly Mülkiye, the LSE and the College d’Europe, my association with any of their alumni is not very strong, to say the least. Alumni connections can be a great resource in the now increasingly tight job market and isolated islands of personal relationships.

I like my former classmates because they are my friends, not because we have by chance graduated from the same educational establishment or because of some noble sentiments of having breathed the same air for four years in the same class. Besides, I have no shortage of valued friends from other schools and walks of life.

When I joined the foreign service back in 1986 (and stayed in a variety of posts until 1994), I soon found out that rigid hierarchy played a key role defining people’s roles, status and order. The corridors of power were populated by cliques — groups of allied individuals who help each other overtly and covertly.

As a free-spirited man, I could not stomach the expectation of belonging to any particular clique within the ministry. Doing so, I was told, would help a great deal to get good postings abroad or at home. I am happy to see that this perception is not as widespread as it used to be in the current more conducive atmosphere. In other parts of the public service, political and religious leanings still count more than merit.

We also tend to categorize nations ruthlessly. While I was working at the Turkish Embassy in Beijing, I developed a great admiration for China, on its march to world superpower status. China changed my life forever. I also felt great sympathy for our Uyghur brethren who were mistreated and oppressed in the northwest of China, and I made great efforts to understand their plight better and tried my best to help them in any way I could within the confines of my diplomatic work. But I never thought about making a stark choice between the Chinese and the Uyghurs. I still know many Chinese people whom I work with and cherish as good friends.

It is not easy to justify, with the stereotype created by the “they stabbed us in the back” stories, our sometimes racially tinged attitudes toward Arabs. We should understand the other side of the coin. Everybody has their own stories worth listening to. Here comes the importance of putting yourself in other people’s shoes.

When Saudi Prince Abdullah al-Turki did not want to shake hands with me on grounds that our ancestors in the Sublime Porte executed his grandfather by hanging him on the walls of Tophane for days, I did not take any personal offense. He was probably one of the Wahhabis who rose up against the Ottoman palace. I managed to shift the conversation with the prince to the Ottoman hamams and the Hejaz Railway. He was later instrumental in arranging a visit to Mecca for an umrah (pilgrimage) for me.

No nation has a clean history

I tend to kid around when the matters that foment historic enmity between Turks and Greeks or Armenians emerge. It is always wise to avoid falling prey to their traps or to forcefully project our own well-rehearsed theses that invite hostile reactions. In the debates about our European Union accession process — longer than my own lifetime — in particular, I enjoy tremendously seeing the surprise on the faces of the people who hear me saying, with self-confidence, “Why do we want to join that club of losers?”

When one refrains from belonging to cliques, clubs, alumni groupd and musical fan clubs, it is hard to make a choice in elections. I have developed strong friendships with members of the two biggest parties of the UK. I am happy that I will not have to choose between Gordon Brown and David Cameron in May 2010 when the next elections will be fought. Thankfully, I am not entitled to vote. If I were, I would most probably vote for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, my classmate from College d’Europe in Bruges.

Your colors are determined by which newspaper you read

For me it is equally enjoyable to read Le Monde, Le Figaro, The New Yorker, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph. Every morning, I access the Web sites of not only Hürriyet, Radikal, Cumhuriyet and Sabah, but also of Yeni Şafak and Yeni Çağ. I occasionally glance through Doğu Perinçek’s Aydınlık and treat myself by indulging in media gossip through the pages of Medya Tava.

I have probably penned hundreds of scientific papers and newspaper articles in the last quarter of a century. I hardly bothered about where they were published — I simply sent them to whoever requested and valued them.

During my university years, I wrote for Aydın Yalçın’s magazine Yeni Forum and for Mehmet Ali Kışlalı’s weekly Yankı. Cumhuriyet, Milliyet, the Turkish Daily News, Dünya and Zaman also used quite a lot of ink and paper on my articles. Then, whether it was CNBC, CNN-Turk, TRT-Turk, ATV, Kanal 7 or anyone else, I did not mind speaking to different audiences at all. I never worried about whether these newspapers and TV channels were leftist, liberal, religious, nationalist or conservative.

Do not discriminate

The Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD) has published two of my strategy reports: “The New Economic Superpower China and Turkey” (1994) and “An Economic Diplomacy Strategy for Turkey” (1998). I took pleasure in advising this business group in an honorary capacity for several years while still working for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

I equally enjoyed talking about my book “Turkey’s 2023 Roadmap” with members of the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (MÜSİAD). The vision I had set out for the country’s future had not seen such vibrant and sincere interest anywhere else before. The Rotarians’ annual meeting was another platform where I discussed how businesses needed to prepare for the post-crisis period.

Whenever the government requested my assistance or opinion on an issue, I felt it was my responsibility to put aside even my most pressing tasks and make a contribution. I never thought about keeping my knowledge and experience to myself until a governing power I felt closer to came along five or 10 years later. This never even crossed my mind. I have gladly made modest contributions to the party programs and election manifestos of all three political parties that are in the limelight today.

While working at the OECD, known as the “rich man’s club,” one of my main responsibilities was to spread the gospel of the free market. But, whenever it became obvious that the supply and demand balance and the wild capitalist practices/institutions were not the right remedies to cure the distress of wide segments of the society, I did not hesitate to bluntly raise my voice and did everything I could for the development of appropriate policies that would make a difference.

Speaking to international organizations, governments, companies, clubs, military, religious institutions, think tanks and journalists from all over the world at least once a month, without discriminating against anyone, is my passion. I also listen a great deal and then put pen to paper to achieve syntheses and synergies in my own way.

What really matters

The essential thing for me is that the views and vision I believe in should reach a broader audience and contribute to the opening of new windows, albeit small ones, in people’s minds. There is a difficult-to-define synthesis of idealism and pragmatism which I have been trying to put into practice. For some people, such an approach could be interpreted as a sign of having no spine.

Do we have to be absolutely either on the left or right of a black-and-white line? Do we have to push away, criticize unconstructively and keep those different from us away from our surroundings as much as possible? Isn’t there a growing need for people that seek a common road map and language and encourage production, charity, solidarity, cooperation and compromise as opposed to the divisive in-fighting, enmity, confrontation and constant dissension which reign in our world today?

*Mehmet Öğütçü is a Mülkiye, London School of Economics and Collège d’Europe graduate, a former Turkish diplomat and a senior Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) staffer.