How to lose a country


Last week, I finished reading How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship by a Turkish journalist and political thinker in exile, Ece Temelkuran, which is a brilliant memoir/nonfiction on how countries, regardless of geography or administration, can quickly slide into dictatorship once we give populist leaders an inordinate amount of power. The book starts as the answer to a British audience’s — oblivious to the fact that the fate as Turkey’s could even befall her own Western country — question to Temelkuran during one of her talks, “how can we help you?” with her own, “how can I help you?”. With Turkey as the dependent variable in question, Temelkuran lists down the seven steps on how to spot the insidious patterns and mechanisms of populism taking over the world, with countries such as Britain, the United States, and Russia as the prominent examples in the book.

One of the steps, ‘let them laugh at their horror’ describes on how, in the act of resistance against authoritarian regimes, people come together and use humour as a way to dispel worries, doubts, and anger against the state. Temelkuran calls this ‘carnivalesque opposition’ and ‘rebellious laughter’, I learned this as ‘laughtivism‘ and ‘collective effervescence’ theorised by Durkheim — moments in which people come together in some form of unifying, excitement-inducing activity — is at the root of what holds groups together in an act of support or against a form of power. This is why we could see how memes and parody are popular during protest movements. “It’s a funny fact about humanity; fear and pain, rather than courage and joy, are diminished when shared. And so I, like hundreds around me, am laughing as painful teargas run down my cheeks,” Temelkuran wrote.

Diogenes was said to be the first resistance performance artist, ‘shading’ Alexander the Great with his wit, as written in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing:

Many people are familiar with “the man who lived in a tub,” scorning all material possessions except for a stick and a ragged cloak. Diogenes’s most notorious act was to roam through the city streets with a latern, looking for an honest man; in paintings, he’s often shown with the lantern by his side, sulking inside a round terra-cotta tub while the life of the city goes on around him. There are also paintings of the time he dissed Alexander the Great, who had made it a point to visit this famous philosopher. Finding Diogenes lazing in the sun, Alexander expressed his admiration and asked if there was anything Diogenes needed. Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my light.”

In celebrating our capacity to resist with mirth as a way to ridicule the rulers, Temelkuran also warned us against humour weaponised by populist leaders to distract us from more pressing matters at hand, as demonstrated in the events of the Trump’s slipped covfefe tweet (in trying to distract us from the United States’ pulling out of the Paris Accord) as well as his many others.

There are two main points I could take away from this book: One, never underestimate your opponent — a slipped seemingly dumb tweet could be a ploy to distract from a nuclear war or something; two, never underestimate how the smallest motivation — in Turkey’s case, the poor voted for AKP in power because they were the ones who controlled the main arteries of the capital and have been imbursing the poor with money and food supply, “Tell me why shouldn’t I take food when I am hungry?”, and in the US, Trump was seen as the saviour for the white nationalists as the answer for their manufactured oppression.

This is a part memoir, part nonfiction (as how I see it) so initially I was kind of put off by how the writing seemed academic at one point and poetic in another (Temelkuran is also a poet) but starting 2020 by reading this, and in current political climate is a great wake up call. If you keep thinking, “what happened in [insert country] couldn’t happen here”, the bad news is yes, it could even happen to even your seemingly modern and stable country.

Currently reading:

  • “In discussing the appeal of the News Feed in that same interview with Kirkpatrick, Zuckerberg observed, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” The statement is grotesque not because it’s false — it’s true, actually — but because it’s a category error. It yokes together in an obscene comparison two events of radically different scale and import. And yet, in his tone-deaf way, Zuckerberg managed to express the reality of content collapse. When it comes to information, social media renders category errors obsolete.” On social media, context collapse, content collapse, and context restoration.
  • “The maps were crucial during last year’s severe winter storms, which left many camps inundated, allowing aid groups to find the settlements in need of help bailing out water or supplies like fresh mattresses and blankets.” How aid groups map informal refugee camps using both low and high tech methods.
  • This fun civic syllabus for students in the United States. In Malaysia, our very own young people at Undi 18 are running this very same initiative on providing civic and electoral literacy for the young people, starting with the bill to lower voting age from 21 to 18 in the country.
  • “When you have no human face, you have no human flaws.” Why Google gets away with so much.
  • “I woke up, and it was political.”


  • Reading: Re-reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.
  • Viewing: Season 2 of Sex Education on Netflix!
  • Listening: The East is a Podcast‘s episode on imperialism.
  • Food & Drink: Stayed home the entire day and had been gorging on instant noodle. I know, I know — more healthy food!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s