The Moment of Truth — October 14, 2006

Moral Turkitude

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Mel Gibson said on some TV show that he’s a jolly drunk until, at a certain critical blood-alcohol ratio, he snaps and turns psycho. Not to imply a correlation between such an alcohol problem and anti-Semitism, but it’s a fact Hitler suffered a similar weakness. He couldn’t drink tequila.

Q. Why couldn’t Hitler drink tequila?

A. Cuz it made him mean.

Speaking of genocide, Orhan Pamuk, who won’t let his fellow Turks forget their Armenian one, in spite of their best efforts, won the Nobel Prize for literature this week. At eleven years old, he’s the youngest person to win a Nobel Prize since Mozart. Talk about a young Turk!

All right, he’s in his fifties. Had Mozart lived into his fifties he might have won an Oscar, a Tony, several Grammies, a Bloggy, and probably a few Olympic gold medals. For our generation, Pamuk will have to do. This year he also got the Prix Mediterranee Etranger, which is French for “Strange Mediterranean Prize”—in this case a lifetime supply of squid ink. Pamuk also won the Medici Prize, which is a prize the French give to foreign writers. That’s a pretty strange prize, too: a box of doorknobs. I’m not sure why the French give such strange prizes to foreigners. It’s almost as if they’re trying to unload a lot of extra stuff they have lying around. If so, I think they ought to come clean about it and have a garage sale.

“Garage,” by the way, comes from an ancient proto-Gaulish word, “garaj,” which means “cave of forgotten items.”

And a forgotten item is just what the Turkish government wants the Armenian genocide to be. They even have laws against remembering it. Now, Turkey wants to join the EU. But at least one country in the EU has laws against DENYING a certain genocide. You know the one I mean.

What a mismatched pair of prohibitions. Call it a clash of censorships.

And now French legislators, to further honor Orhan Pamuk, I guess, are trying to pass a law against denying the Armenian Holocaust. One can consider such an attempt offensively overreaching or simply stupid, but let’s be generous and say it’s the first time a law has been passed solely as a gesture of satire. It’s almost as if all of Europe is saying to the government of Turkey, “This is what you have to look forward to if you join the EU: individuals who criticize you are apt to gain a lot more prestige than you’re used to according them, and the French will really milk it. All your moral foibles will be pointed out and flogged by self-righteous intellectuals and artists. Are you ready for that? We didn’t think so.”

Not that critics of the Turkish government don’t have the right if not the obligation to speak out against Turkey’s crimes against humanity. To this day Turkey’s got an atrocious relationship with its Kurdish population, as well as others it defines as enemies of the state. And Turkish prisons, of course, are proverbial. In French prison there’s a dessert cart. Turkish prison, by contrast, is one of the few places on Earth where you can’t get Turkish Delight. Well, you can get something CALLED Turkish Delight, but it doesn’t mean the same thing, and it’s not delightful. And the taffy ain’t nothing to write home about, neither.

Genocide is like the weather: everybody talks about it, you can try to protect yourself from it, but no has been able to stop it, and as the boundaries of human arrogance expand it keeps getting weirder and might one day destroy us all.

One runs across many people who say, “Never again.” But what they mean is, “Never again to us.” And members of a historically victimized group are understandably touchy about their own particular victimization. Still, underlying that kind of identity grievance is pessimism: every nation for itself, each against all. Genocide will be part of the human condition always, so the best we can hope for is to prevent it happening to our kind.

However, there are those who refuse to accept that hopeless article of faith. They believe there’s something positive to be achieved by bringing one’s own nation face-to-face with its immoral acts, and that such a confrontation should be more than an exercise in national shame or even national circumspection. They believe nations can be taught to look beyond their identities, toward greater humanity and the larger world, and understand that equal rights to existence, liberty and dignity are inherent aspects of such a world on both sides of any border.

Writers who can communicate that belief with clarity and power are good writers. I like when they get prizes. Even with the barbed-wire tangle of rhetoric and politics surrounding such an award, at root the awarding of it seems to me a good thing. Pamuk speaks about an international ecumenism, which may be idealistic, but his approach to it is neither megalomaniacal nor ineffectual. He writes novels. Writing novels is an incremental and laborious activity, as world-changing activities go, Lincoln’s legendary quote to Harriet Beecher Stowe notwithstanding. Idealistic teachers, nurses, doctors, artists, legal aids, counselors of the spirit and the psyche, friends, partners, community workers and volunteers—they all practice that same kind of labor.

It’s as pragmatic a means to an idealistic end as anyone has figured out yet. Most of the time it gets short-changed in favor of grand gestures… like, for example, war and atrocities and such.

So, yes, it’s nice to see it recognized in a hard-working novelist. Don’t you think?

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