The Turks, the French, the Ballot Box Gloom

As the sun swept the Anatolian plain last Sunday the margin of support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power grab slipped. For a moment I thought the responsibility for the future of the Republic could rest with urban, cosmopolitan, relatively liberal Istanbul.

Silly me. Before dark the futility of hoping good sense could prevail over the combined forces of rural conservatives and elite-controlled media became clear. The electoral commission’s decision, taken during voting, to allow unvalidated ballots to be counted meant the fix was in; the Erdogan forces deployed whatever votes they needed to assure the President’s continued power, likely until 2029.

You may be in your fourth decade of life in Harare and Robert Mugabe has always been your leader. It’s getting to be like that in our Turkish NATO ally. And for his trouble manipulating the referendum, Turkey’s leader has been rewarded with congratulations from the American president and a long-sought visit to Washington.

This kind of thing is going around. So far it’s mostly tinkering around the edges, tentative constricting of liberty, freedom, thought, in our country and abroad. No would-be despot is yet prepared to go full throat but in all countries everywhere, “line up behind me” is gaining cachet.

The West’s reigning pundits are sure of the cause: Our worldwide distemper reflects the various electorates’ rejection of globalization. More narrowly, I think, it seeks to demonstrate rejection of the decisions taken by leaders since the 2008 global financial crisis.

In our part of the world we talk a good game on the importance of freedom and individual rights, peace and harmony and opportunity and justice and sweetness and light. But what recent plebiscite shows reason for optimism for any of that? The Turkish referendum? Brexit? Trump? France?

Well now. France.

Should French political dissatisfaction send their country spinning into the arms of either extreme candidate (who in late polling cluster with the other, more conventional leaders, all within a few percent of one another), the Fifth Republic’s future heir to Charles de Gaulle may either:

– lead France out of the EU and into the Kremlin’s orbit under Marine Le Pen’s assiduously sanitized, formerly Jew-baiting, still alarmed-by-immigrants right, or

– lead France into the uncharted, hologramatic realm of La France Insoumise, equally out of the EU from the left via the man the horrified French right calls the French Chavez.

Far more so than in the U.S. and even in increasingly Little England (where the reliably Tory-horrified Guardian’s opinion page this week called the Prime Minister’s call for a general election a coup), in France the entire system-as-we’ve-known-it is up for grabs. The center right and center left, which have alternated power throughout the Fifth Republic, both smolder in shambles.

The candidate on the conventional right, battling grimly back here at the end, is mired in scandal, and the conventional left has come apart at the seams. The candidate put up by the incumbent Socialist Prime Minister’s party has spun his wheels, unable to get traction, while farther to the left the anti-capitalist Jean-Luc Mélanchon has come on strong, out of nowhere since my first handicapping three weeks ago.

Meanwhile the candidate desperately designated as the Gallant White Knight is an unproven 39 year old would-be maverick who has spent his entire life preparing inside the establishment. As a skeptical Dissent magazine summarizes, Emmanuel “Macron attended the prestigious Henri IV prep school in Paris. From there, he moved on to Sciences Po, a highly selective university that specializes in politics and international relations, before graduating from the ultra-elite École Nationale d’Administration, an institution that literally produces France’s ruling class.”

So what have we got? Who knows. French election watchers have begun to caution that ballots uncast in the first round may be more portentous than those cast, and that “polls showing Ms. Le Pen losing badly in a May 7 runoff election against either Emmanuel Macron or Francois Fillon (the two more conventional candidates) could be misleading.

There is some doubt whether supporters of Mélanchon on the far left could gin up enthusiasm to vote for establishment-bred Macron just to block the xenophobic Le Pen. At mid-week before Sunday’s first round, the Globe and Mail and Politico EU echoed this idea.

It all adds up, as the France 24 chyron has it three days before election day, to “total uncertainty.”

Also published here on

Animals with Personality

I’ve been reading lately about the prevalence of traits we think of as human traits in animals. The idea of animal “personality” is problematic by anthropomorphic definition. But still. Here are a few creatures we’ve met down through the years. For me, it’s hard to imagine them not having personalities.

Click them for bigger versions at


“We humans living on our one planet wring our hands about the brevity of our lives and our mortal restraints, but we do not often think about how improbable it is to be alive at all. Of all the zillions of atoms and molecules in the universe, we have the privilege of being composed of those very, very few atoms that have joined together in the special arrangement to make living matter. We exist in that one-billionth of one-billionth. We are that one grain of sand on the desert.”

Alan Lightman


““When something quite new and singular is presented … The memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance. It stands alone and by itself in the imagination. (This) constitute(s) the sentiment properly called Wonder, and occasion(s) that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart, which we may all observe, both in ourselves and others, when wondering at some new object.”

– Adam Smith on Wonder.

Titanic History

Object of Rearrangement:
Deck Chair from the Titanic, from the
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

105 years ago tonight the Titanic met its fate. Short excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold:

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either….

Weekend Reading

Join me in exploring these articles over the weekend, which for a lucky few is three days long. I’ve bumped them over to Instapaper but haven’t finished them all myself. Let’s see where they lead.

Thanks for your participation in yesterday’s photo quiz, and if you haven’t ventured a guess yet, you have until next Thursday to do so. I’ll draw from the correct answers then and send the winner a copy of the audiobook version of Common Sense and Whiskey. We’ll do this Fridays for the rest of the summer.

Meanwhile, this is a momentous weekend for the Turks, who go to the polls on Sunday to decide on granting more power to President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan. Opinion leaders can’t decide among themselves which way to lead; either the Turkish President is a badass anti-democratic juggernaut, or a defeat could put him in peril:

Win or Lose on Referendum, Turkey’s Erdoğan Spells Trouble
How Erdogan’s Referendum Gamble Might Backfire

But enough of that for now. On to some articles for your weekend perusal:

Icebergs by George Philip LeBourdais at
Operation London Bridge: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death by Sam Knight in The Guardian
A Town Under Trial by Nick Tabor in the Oxford American
Why some infinities are bigger than others by A W Moore in Aron Magazine
The Case For Butterfish by Neal Ascherson at