What becomes of an empire as it sinks into a depraved desire to expand and, ultimately, survive at any cost? This is the question on my mind since I finished Orhan Pamuk’s tome Nights of Plague which some reviewers called a work in three genres: historical novel, murder mystery, and political allegory.
Pamuk lives and writes in Türkiye, rump of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. He’s often in trouble with his government for not depicting their antecedents splendidly enough — as for instance when he acknowledged the Armenian genocide and was placed under house arrest as a result. This time he’s accused of mocking Atatürk, the founder of modern Türkiye. But the events of his new novel, set as the Ottoman Empire sputters out, are as imaginary as its physical setting: an island besieged by bubonic plague.
It was impossible for me to read this book without noticing the many parallels to my own failing empire.
When spying and surveillance become the way to hold on to power long after rulers have lost the confidence of the ruled, I think of the U.S. Not only informers but technology-based surveillance of every phone call (thank you, Edward Snowden), every email (no thank you, Google), and every social media post is the fuel our sputtering empire runs on. We’ve now seen firsthand evidence that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms are deeply infested by U.S. alphabet agencies like the CIA, FBI, and NSA — one might even say, controlled by them.
Fake news? Dying empires specialize in it. The inability to reflect on blunders and correct course is baked in to imperial hubris. This guarantees more mistakes and the kind of poor decisions that hasten one’s demise. For example, a series of failed wars in the Middle East and 800+ military outposts in other nations that are economically, morally, and environmentally unsustainable. Extreme weather events batter us while the empire continues pumping greenhouse gasses out at an alarming rate to maintain its self-appointed dominance. And funding failed rocket launches that trash the environment while government entities like the FAA look away.
Inability to manage public health in an atmosphere of suspicion and deliberate misinformation by governments who must proclaim their glory (whether D or R flavored) characterizes our day. When almost no one trusts government at all levels, the only way to get people to cooperate with it is through fear and intimidation. These methods are notoriously bad at promoting healthy outcomes.
Which brings us to torture.
A central conflict is Pamuk’s book is the tension between methods of solving a crime such as murder. The Ottoman method is to decide who the culprits are, then torture them until they confess. The Sherlock Holmes method (the reigning sultan is a fan) is to use deductive reasoning to discover the culprits. Our modern Turkish novelist paints these as “East” versus “West” and indeed this lens was prevalent at the turn of the 20th Century. But is that still accurate today?
Who bombed the Nord Stream pipeline? Only examine the obfuscation and determination not to know the answer to see what “the West” has come to.
Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from? Many have concluded based on the evidence that it was invented in a lab especially its highly significant gain-of-function ability to be spread via aerosols. The U.S. government in particular has distinguished itself in spreading false information and in punishing those who offer a counter narrative, or even those who wonder aloud if the official narrative is plausible.
Julian Assange is the most visible victim of torture inflicted for telling the truth about U.S. war crimes. His torment is meant as a warning to us all: practice actual journalism and prepare to forfeit your freedom, your health, even your life. As the torturers signal their false respect for press freedom and journalists.
Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo stand as exemplars of torture regimes that even an Ottoman sultan would admire. But once instilling fear in others reaches the level of terrorizing, the information gained is practically worthless. The cruelty of extraordinary rendition as a fishing expedition for possible future informants and infiltrators is a source of pride for the twisted individuals responsible.
Plausible deniability is also as U.S.ian today as it was once Ottoman. Pamuk’s sultan gets rid of political enemies by making sure they’re murdered far away from the capitol by agents whose actions cannot be traced back to the head of state. Similarly, the U.S./NATO proxy war on Russia via Ukraine has been a huge disinformation success. My venal senator Susan Collins just sent me email claiming we’re there to defend democracy (in one of the least democratic of European nations) and to respond to Russia’s “unprovoked” invasion of the Donbas region.
But sure let’s keep claiming that Russia is the one shelling the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia that they’ve controlled for a year now. By refusing to see the truth that Ukraine is doing the shelling (with U.S. or NATO equipment), we also refuse to understand how to stave off a possible meltdown.
Our hands are tied by our own lies.
When the application of force is seen as the solution to any and all problems, your society is bound to fail. Because many problems — like pandemics — cannot be solved by force. Education, persuasion, and confidence that leaders can make tough but beneficial public health decisions are the stuff of public health management. In their absence, the infection rages on.