America’s Secret

It is no accident that books and DVDs claiming to offer the solution to the mystery of life and the key to happiness/wealth (how to become the owner of a new home/car or heaps of cash) come from America (and their bad Turkish copies from related sources). I am not about to try to solve the mystery of this country. It is anyway years since I shed the “doctor from America” costume and my image has long since become more local. But this country does have something like a mystery (“this country” because I am writing from America this week, impolite though it may be to mention). I’m taking a look at it from our Turkish point of view—our Turkey which once dreamed of being a little America, and never made it.

A feast for the eyes. Let us begin first of all with standards; the size of food portions, for example, or the vast variety of goods (and their cut-rate prices) in stores. I remember how when I began working at the hospital in New Haven in the early 1990s and saw newspaper ads for sales, I thought they would only last a week and ran off to the stores so I wouldn’t miss out. Maybe it was because I came from a country where the Murat 131 was considered a Cadillac in those days. Or because I was one of those who grew up believing every opportunity is created to be missed. In any case, although it is almost fifteen years since I left, America is not, of course, all that different—aside from the greater number of cars and people, and the spread of cell phones in the last seven or eight years.

A national tradition of optimism. And, there is the super-optimistic atmosphere one expects from Americans, perhaps due in part to the self-help industry. Although working as a psychiatrist I more often encountered people who had lost that optimism, or never had it in the first place, I can say that their having reached the last stop of a way of being which has offered no choice but optimism, perhaps since Christopher Columbus, played a role. Moreover, it is no surprise that the grandchildren of people who survived by being forced to apply (unknowingly) the “you can make it if you try” rule we hear in the preaching of self-help gurus abide as incorrigible optimists. I take into account the optimism-producing effects of living in the land of plenty, and the objections which begin, “If we had the money,” but still.

The capacity for self-criticism. On this visit I may have discovered one of the secrets (that make America America), one that had never even occurred to me all those years I lived here, at an exhibition I went to. In brief, the exhibition held at the New York Historical Society, devoted to the study of the history of New York, told us that New York was a long time in the making. Even at the end of the eighteenth century, when the country was governed by people who believed slavery should be abolished, no one acted to put the idea into practice. The unpaid labor which slaves provided (though their upkeep had its costs) had made New York and other eastern states so dominant, particularly in the industry dependent on cotton, that no one found it easy to give it up.

Slavery. Although the abolition of slavery was less a matter of good intentions or philanthropic ideals than an instrument of class conflict within the country, slaves also benefited. Now, I will not here go into the literature of “the USA got rich on slavery, while we Turks are no good at doing wrong, we never managed to be colonialists or to use our slaves as anything but harem women and their eunuch guards.” One of the secrets of the American economy might have, of course, been slavery. But that is not the secret I want to draw your attention to, and I don’t know much about economics in any case.

Wrongs of the past. For a society to be straightforward with itself, able to remember the wrongs it committed in the past and open them to discussion—although we may doubt its sincerity in doing so—appears to be an important factor in keeping the internal structure of this society sound. Can we call that a secret? I don’t know.

I think that despite all we find strange about it, the flexibility of the United States in finding solutions as a society, in getting up to monkey business (see Iraq) and finding ways out of it (remains to be seen), its effort to be open-minded about the wrongs it has done, is one of the most important secrets at the heart of its almost presumptuous optimism. The fact that the USA takes part in many of the “evils” occurring in the world does not take away the ease with which it can look at itself—the source of the optimism of those who live in this country.

Evil. Well then, what’s all that to us? What might our secret be? Aren’t the streets of Istanbul as paved with gold as America’s? Don’t you find what you expect to find? If the mystery of life is that simple, what shall we say to those who come to Istanbul and do not find that gold? Probably not: “Go thou and learn secrets from books.”

The American situation is similar; while willingness to admit wrongs is an enlightened, sincere position, streets paved with gold become a reality (as least for some) with insincere films such as Babil and Crash, which appear to be self-critical and appease those who are wronged. Those left behind or left out consider themselves responsible for not finding their golden streets. They could if they tried.

We may try, and still not get rich. But, if we try, we may do more to confront our own negativities and really become optimistic, really pursue the things we want. In this sense, there is nothing wrong with being a little America. But no one tries.


*translated by Victoria Hollbrooke