Taking Sides

In the Turkey of my youth, during the violent years, when the strife between the left and right had reached its peak, and when the propagandists and recruiters had staked out even grade schools, I had a confrontation with someone who was handing out fliers like candies at my school gate. Without even looking at the flier, I tore it up and flung it at him. My father’s driver, who picked me up every day, rushed in, grabbed my arm, and dragged me to the car. He had been afraid, he told me, I was in danger, because I was taking sides—at least that’s how it looked like to everyone watching. He was right. I was taking sides. But not one of the obvious ones: the communists, who called themselves revolutionaries, or the ultra-national radicals, who called themselves Grey Wolves. In my mind, I was taking a stand against both extremes, because they employed the same tactics and caused the same suffering. And why not take a stand? I lived in a world where one side of a street was occupied by the communists and the other by the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves. The driver who dragged me away had lost a brother to a communist attack. A Grey Wolf in my neighborhood, an upperclassman, with whom I shared a ride sometimes, went to prison for something he refused to tell me. My brother’s birthday party was interrupted by a bomb thrown into our yard. And we—children—were becoming callous enough to fire a gun off the balcony for a surge of adrenalin. Yet, I was still young enough to cling to the possibility of absolute truth, standing in its own corner somewhere, on its own side.

I had reason to believe this. My mother, an Estonian refugee, had passed down horror stories about fleeing one side only to get caught up in the other. While trying to escape Stalin’s terror, my mother’s family had run smack into Hitler’s. Communism and Fascism were not much different from each other in terms of oppression. Again, two extremes. Years later, when my mother was flirting with forgiveness, she would say, “It didn’t matter what side we were on, we all had fear and death in our eyes.” And, for me, somewhere out there, was still the third side, the absolute truth that, if only someone were to reveal it, dignity would envelop human life.

Immediately after World War II, that side may well have been America—at least to what was left over from families like my mother’s, liberated by American soldiers bearing chocolate for the children, which the children promptly threw up, because they had been starving. Nonetheless, it was freedom they were promising, and progress, and safety. It was the opposite of oppression. America was the new hope, because it did not have territorial ambitions and it advocated self-governance. Besides, it stood in the way of Soviet expansion.

Yet, only eight years later, in 1953, America was conducting joint operations with Britain to topple a democratically elected government in Iran, because a chain of reaction caused by a British embargo, in response to the Iranian government’s attempt to limit British control over Iranian oil reserves, had threatened Western interests. America’s reasoning: a destabilized Iran increased the Soviet threat in the region. By the 1980s, this Cold War rhetoric had been abused and overused to justify too many American covert operations—Guatemala, Syria, Indonesia, Congo—seriously alienating world opinion and raising the question, what happens to the people’s voice, when free people democratically elect a government, but America decides the new government was not elected by the people but by the Soviet Union?

Or, what happens when free people get angry, because they start to believe their voice does not matter? Around the time the bomb exploded in our yard during my brother’s birthday party, one of my friends in the neighborhood, an Iranian girl called Shirin, disappeared. The first sign something was wrong was the absence of the noise the army truck made when it came up the hill early in the mornings to relieve the night-duty soldiers tasked by the Turkish government to guard Shirin’s family. Her father had been Shah Reza Pahlavi’s Military Attaché in Turkey. Days before her disappearance, Shirin had told me, there was a revolution in her country, and her father had been called back. Neither of us knew what that meant. But later, I heard my mother whispering with my father. It was the kind of revolution from which people did not come back. I remember worrying about Shirin. Unlike me, who wore the same pair of pants and t-shirt for ten days, she had a different frilly dress for every day, and a matching bow.

There is no such thing as, absolute truth waiting to pop out of its corner to deliver a knock-out punch to conflicting sides and to expose them for what they are—untrustworthy, their facts as well as their agenda. By the time I knew, America had covertly supported the Turkish ultranationalists, the Grey Wolves, as a fighting force against Communism and the Soviet Union had naturally provided support to the communists in Turkey, and by the time I learned to hide my anxiety for Shirin and many others like her, I had long become accustomed to relative truths.

In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Fowler, a British correspondent is faced with the critical choice of becoming involved in the Vietnamese conflict. He must decide whether or not to send Pyle, a CIA agent, to his death, in order to stop him from arming civilian-killing General Thế. His faithful assistant Mr. Heng tells Fowler, “Sooner or later, one has to take sides if one is to remain human.” And when Fowler still remains reluctant, Heng proposes, Fowler publish the truth. But Fowler reveals, his “paper is not interested in General Thế.” Fowler feels his only real choice is to set up Pyle.

While it is only another relative truth that getting involved in a conflict helps us remain human, retaining the value of truth itself has to be one of the basic tenets of being human. As a child, I may have been on to something when I tore up the flier, even though in my simplistic way, I was thinking of truth as a pure and separate entity. And today, with the onslaught of information, misinformation, and disinformation, to value truth, to look for it, and to write about it (whether there is an overwhelming interest or not) is more essential than ever. And to handle truth without partisanship helps not to chip away at its credibility. The truth may not be easy to find, because one conflicting side is usually no better than the other, and that is why it is so important to shed bias while looking for it—so we can recognize it when we see it no matter in what form and what unlikely place it may be hiding.

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