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Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”

BLOG #40, SERIES #8

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #70

FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY’S THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV

October 4, 2017

The greatest novel ever written”

Sigmund Freud

Signet 1958 Edition – MGM Movie Cover

This complex book is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. Indeed, it is one of the ten in W. Somerset Maugham Selects The World’s Ten Greatest Novels (New York: John C. Winston, 1948/1959).

It is not a book for children, adolescents, or teens. Indeed, it is one of the deepest and most disorienting novels ever written. The “Pro and Contra” section, which includes “The Grand Inquisitor” section is generally considered to be a masterpiece of its kind, unequaled in the history of world literature. I have personally found it to be inexhaustible: no matter how many times I have read and re-read it, always I discover new unsettling insights. No other novelist, not even Victor Hugo, even comes close to Dostoyevsky in this respect.

Dostoyevsky was not a likable man. In fact, he did despicable things and alienated most everyone he met. But he was born into a family ruled by such a malevolent father that he was slain by his own serfs. The son was condemned to the horrors of a Siberian prison camp for four long years due to a minor political involvement. All this makes for fascinating reading but it does little to explain how the author could have risen above such an out-of-control, lecherous, unfaithful, gambling-obsessed life to write one of the world’s most thought-provoking books.

For this blog, I looked at source after source seeking a scholarly answer to this question. I finally found it in Manuel Komroff’s great introduction to the Signet (New American Library) unabridged edition of BK (1958). Following are some illuminating passages.

Dostoevsky was not an easy man to have for a husband. His passion for gambling, his epilepsy, his financial difficulties and his infidelities continued throughout the years of their married life. Nor was his character agreeable. Turgeniev once said that he was “the most evil Christian I have ever met in my life.” And when Dostoyevsky died one of Tolstoi’s friends wrote of him: “I cannot consider Dostoyevsky either a good or a happy man. He was wicked, envious, vicious, and spent the whole of his life in emotions and irritations. . . . In Switzerland he treated his servant, in my presence, so abominably that the offended servant cried out: ‘I too am a human being!’” But all this the faithful Anna denied. The fourteen years of their life together, she has recorded in her memoirs, convinced her that Dostoyevsky was the purest being on earth. And now after a century nothing matters except his genius and the rich heritage he has left us.Dostoyevsky is the most Russian of all Russian novelists, and his novels follow the Russian form. Unlike English novels, which are biographical, Dostoyevskiy’s novels are built on a theme charged with a moral philosophy that binds the characters to the action and induces in them a compelling emotional drive.

In The Brothers Karamazov, the last and greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels, the theme and philosophy are clearly stated in one of the early chapters: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the Devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” This duel is more than a simple encounter. It is a duel unto death. God and the Devil fight for the soul of man. And Dostoyevsky asks: “Who is laughing at mankind?” And he answers by showing that the laughter comes from within man himself: “In every man a demon lies hidden.”

The theme and philosophy of The Brothers Karamazov occupied Dostoyevsky’s mind for many years. In a letter to a friend he writes: “The chief problem dealt with throughout this particular work is the very one which has, my whole life long, tormented my conscious and subconscious being: The question of the existence of God.” What if God does not exist? Then for Dostoyevsky the world is nothing but a “vaudeville of devils” and “all things are lawful” even crime.

The Heritage Press edition, 1933, 1949

To illustrate this theme and philosophy, Dostoyevsky introduces us to the Karamazov family. We meet a lecherous and corrupt father and four sons. The eldest son Dmitri symbolizes the flesh, the second son Ivan represents the intellect, the youngest son Alyosha, the spiritual side of man and the illegitimate son Smerdyakov represents the “insulted and injured, the disinherited.” These characters are caught in a web of moral philosophy, the strands of which are so strong that none can escape. God and the Devil battle for possession of their souls. The fight is furious. It rages from the first page to the last page. The characters are all involved in a murder, and as they stamp across the stage they reveal their emotions, conscious and subconscious, with terrifying clarity.

In that famous chapter “The Grand Inquisitor,” certainly the most famous chapter in all literature, Christ himself returns to our sorry earth and is challenged by organized religion. Here Christianity is weighed with critical bitterness. And the questions are asked: “Can man live by Christ’s teachings? Would not the Devil, that ‘wise and mighty spirit of the wilderness’ support mankind in a better manner? And why must man choose between freedom and bread?” “The Grand Inquisitor” is more than a chapter in a novel. It presents a whole philosophy of history in literary form. In this chapter God and the Devil wage a fierce encounter. And in the end God seems vanquished and the Devil the proud victor: Christianity is condemned. This theme is again restated towards the end of the novel in another famous chapter. Here Ivan holds a dialogue with the Devil and they weigh Western morality in life’s battered scales.These two chapters present the arguments for the denial of God. The affirmation of God is contained in chapters dealing with Alyosha and the Elder, Father Zossima. In these chapters Dostoyevsky attempts to show the making of a saint and the power of Christ-like love. Dostoyevsky believes that Christ-like love wins in the end. But does he prove it? He is a master in dealing with crime and the unlawful heart of man, but how well he succeeds with goodness, of which Father Zossima and Alyosha are the symbols, the reader must decide for himself. In the face of the miscarriage of justice, who is the winner, God or the Devil?

 

The Grand Inquisitor and Christ, Heritage Press edition, Fritz Eichenberg illustration

The very inconclusiveness of the book and its ideas, which remain unsolved, seems to add power to the story and the reader becomes deeply involved in the emotions and philosophy. Before long he must surrender being a simple reader, for he becomes part of the Karamazov world. The reader starts out as an innocent bystander and ends up by taking sides and becoming involved in the battle between God and the Devil. And whether he enjoys the experience or not one thing is certain: he emerges from this experience a different person from when he first opened the book. He has been tried by fire. He has been made to think and to reach decisions about many problems which are his personal problems too. The Karamazovs and those who associate with them are terrifying people to the reader because they display boldly certain characteristics which are deeply hidden in our own hearts and which we try hard to deny.Dostoyevsky is supreme as a novelist of ideas. Throughout his works he is concerned and occupied with four R’s. Revelation of Man’s secret heart, Revolution, Russia and Religion.

Dostoyevsky’s revelations in the field of psychology are enormous. They anticipated many of the principles later established by trained psychologists.

Born half a century before Freud, Dostoyevsky records in the pages of his novels astonishing observations in the field of human emotions. He writes in detail about exhibitionism, the Oedipus complex and perversions involving adolescents. He noted that dreams stem from the subconscious and contain erotic symbolism, that they are “induced not by reason but by desire.” He observed that laughter reveals a hidden and secret side of personality, that it is an unconscious unmasking. He described the “accidental family” in which each member is separated from the others and lives an independent and isolated life. The Brothers Karamazov illustrates such a family. He discovered that there is a tendency to despotism, a “will to powers,” inherent in man. He found that love contains among its elements the desire to exercise power over the beloved, and that if this desire is not gratified then the loved one can be hated and loved at the same time. This principle is aslso clearly displayed in the pages of The Brothers Karamazov.

In Dostoyevsky’s observations of the love for self-torture and punishment as a guilt-cleansing device, he anticipated our modern theory of “death-instinct” and Freud’s “beyond the pleasure principle.”

Dostoyevsky contributed all this to our modern world of psychology—all this and more. He even recorded in detail the workings of the “split personality.” He described it in its fairly mild as well as its extreme pathological manifestations. There is hardly an important character in all his works who is not a divided personality. He has one of his characters in The Possessed say: “I am capable of desiring to do something good and of feeling pleasure from it: at the same time I desire evil and feel pleasure from that too.” But no better examples of “split personalities” can be found than in The Brothers Karamazov. There are for instance Dmitri, Katerina with her love-hate, the young girl Lise, and Ivan whose two selves come to clash in that famous chapter in which he encounters the Devil.

Dostoyevsky was not only a psychologist but also a visionary and prophet. He wrote about extra-sensory perceptions (mental telepathy as well as clairvoyance) and his observations contributed to our present day theories of psychical research. His observations regarding gambling, for which he had an abnormal passion, are only recently being confirmed and may in time be incorporated in our modern theories of chance. He believed, for instance, that personal distractions destroyed the power to win and for that reason he never brought his wife with him to the roulette wheel. He believed in a will to win. “I still retain the conviction,” he once wrote, “that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will . . . one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of chance.” This theory he illustrates in his short novel The Gambler. . . .

Due to the pressure of his existence, Dostoyevsky’s books suffer from serious technical defects. But in the face of his great genius these defects are trifling. Dostoyevsky towers above all other novelists, for no other novelist has ever presented so many vital ideas—ideas that have revolutionized our thinking and our lives. As a novelist he has brought to life a whole gallery of people; people of bone, flesh and blood all caught in a web of circumstance. He has the power to engulf his characters in dramatic situations and drive them headlong with passionate desperation. And while his characters are caught in the agony of life, he plumbs deep and lays bare their secret hearts. We understand these hearts for they are not unlike our own. The Dostoyevsky heart is universal. And the people that he gave life to a century ago are living today and will live on for centuries to come. Their blood is warm, red and their hearts beat on.

 

* * *

One fascinating side-trip for each of you to take as you read this great book is to study the fathers and sons in a pre-Freud way. When Dostoyevsky wrote the book during the late 1870s, the only way he could accurately portray all the warring forces striving for dominance inside an individual was to divide them into separate characters:

Fyodor: the dissolute cruel fatherDmitri: the sensuous oldest son

Ivan: the atheistic, intellectual son—would dare to challenge even God Himself

Alexey (Alyosha) the youngest Christ-like son, a pupil of a famous Orthodox Church elder, Zossima

Smerdyakov the illegitimate dissolute sensualist son

The Grand Inquisitor represents organized Christianity, all too often assuming god-like prerogatives that are not theirs to give.

* * *

Now, for one of the greatest reads of your lifetime, seek out an unabridged edition; make it your own by underlining and scribbling your way through it. Journal too.

And every once in a while later in your life, return for another immersion into The Brothers Karamazov.

TAGS

Russian literature

Dostoyevsky

Freud

Russian Orthodox Church

Manuel Komroff

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Hope, Campmeeting, and Raging Fires

BLOG #39, SERIES #8

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

HOPE CAMPMEETING AND RAGING FIRES

September 27, 2017

With a 300% winter snowpack, fires were the last things we expected to see. As we crossed the border into British Columbia, under slightly cloudy skies, fires seemed far away. The closer we came to Hope, the more we became aware of the unique beauty of Hope’s setting: The hub of three major highways, towering snowcapped mountains on all sides, and lapped by British Columbia’s mightiest river, the Fraser, it’s no wonder that Hope is such a tourist mecca.

And British Columbia itself, a third larger than Texas, is bigger than many nations. It is a province characterized by superlatives.

The Adventist camp, where the campmeeting is set [many faiths use the camp], is busy all year long. During summer months, it is filled with 300+ kids each week, there to experience all that mountainous junior camps can offer. As for the annual campmeetings, I was told that while week-day attendance hovers between two to four thousand, on weekends it would swell to five to seven thousand. But would anyone show up at all this year with over 200 fires raging at once in British Columbia alone—many more in neighboring Alberta?

Campmeeting began on Friday, and people poured in. By Monday afternoon, smoke inundated us, and grew thicker as the week wore on. Finally, it became so thick we could no longer see the mouintains such a short distance away. Those campers who did come told tragic tales of friends and relatives who’d been evacuated, losing everything they owned. Many who planned to come, could not. Yet still three to four thousand did come.

 

Hope Prayer Chapel

What amazed me most was the choreography going on all around me. When I was young, campmeeting grounds were full of individual tents. Welcome to the 21st century! Now hundreds of Rvs and trailers filled the 125 acres. Here and there, tents, but they were greatly in the minority. Some—especially the handicapped and elderly—were permitted to stay in the main lodge. The main meetings were held in a large open-on-the-sides auditorium. Youth, tweens, and child-oriented meetings were held in large tents; seminars were held in the multitudinous small buildings that are permanent camp fixtures. Yet, there was no hubbub. Each vehicle driver checked in at the main entrance and was directed to a pre-arranged spot. Families tended to position their vehicles in the same vicinity, same for close friends. Volunteers were everywhere, each clearly happy to serve. It takes hundreds and hundreds to keep that massive human machine functioning smoothly, without a noticeable hitch. Walking through the camp was like finding one’s way through a small outdoor city. Here and there were paid employees, but they weren’t many. I had never seen the like.

Of course there were a few headliners, especially on weekends. They were well known all over the continent: TV personalities, ministers with large followings. Then there were the seminar leaders such as yours truly. I had two back-to-back seminars each afternoon, each one lasting an hour and a half. The first one was for all writers and wannabe authors; the second was for all who wanted to learn how to use Story effectively during their daily story hours at home, and in church services as well. We had a wonderful time. Many came to both seminars.

By the first night, I realized I had to rewrite almost everything I’d written over a six-week period for the writing seminar. Reason being, I had assumed most attendees would be most interested in what it took to be a professional writer. Instead, I was staggered to discover that almost all of them were there to learn how to write well. Fortunately, since I had taught writing for 34 years, I was able to switch gears and rewrite everything each evening. The attendees were wonderful to work with, and I learned much myself just listening to them.

Hope – after the smoke rolled in

It was humbling to discover how many already had many of our books in their homes. Especially all those who shyly tapped me on my shoulder, and said, “I have all your Christmas books [all 25 of them]. They call themselves “Completists,” and come from everywhere—some from Australia, New Zealand, and many from the U.S. when not in seminars, I’d generally gravitate to the book building, and there I’d sign books for customers.

My Favorite Life-Changing Stories sold out by Monday afternoon. Then there was a run on the collection of Angel, Miracle, and Prayer story anthologies; also for all ten of The Good Lord Made Them All animal story anthologies. So I wasn’t much company for my long-suffering wife, Connie.

Everyone was so good to us! So appreciative. In fact, I felt it was more than worth all the time and effort I’d put into the seminars. It also brought home the world-wide aspect of our story ministry—which is not sectarian, but is geared to people of all faiths who are searching for stories incorporating values worth internalizing.

And, I must not close this section of our B.C. series without observing that Campmeetings are even more important today than they were a century ago. Reason being: we are so battered by the secular media that, for our own sanity, and spiritual health, it’s imperative that we periodically escape to serene retreats where there is silence, where cell phones are turned off, so that we may there find ways to re-establish our lines of communication with God.

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THREE WEEKS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA

BLOG #38, SERIES #8

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

THREE WEEKS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA

September 20, 2017

Canada is big—roughly the size of the United States, but in population, the U.S. is ten times more populous. Canada, this year, is celebrating its 150th year as a nation (still an integral part of the British Empire). Unprecedented numbers of Canadians are celebrating that anniversary by visiting their great provincial parks—free, during 2017.

Camp Hope is nestled in the mountains

Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed, in recent years, that the U.S. and Canada are gradually but inexorably merging their cultures, states, and provinces. When it’s hot in the U.S., U.S. citizens travel north; when it’s cold in Canada, Canadians travel south. In Florida, during a certain week in the autumn, it seems like half of Canada has arrived in the suddenly crowded streets. The same is true in California and Arizona. More and more, both nations are tending to refer to states and provinces interchangeably.

Canadians often feel suffocated by the omnipresent U.S. media, impossible to avoid since the vast majority of Canadians live so close to the U.S. border. And they are bombarded by U.S. media 24/7. In fact, that constant electronic blitz makes it increasingly difficult for Canadians to maintain their cultural uniqueness. Intermarriage blurs that as well: our daughter Michelle married Duane Culmore of Oshawa, Ontario, thus resulting in our two grandsons, Taylor and Seth, being dual citizens of both nations.

Thus when I was recently invited to direct two camp meeting seminars in Hope, British Columbia, we welcomed the opportunity to learn more about that great nation to our north.

AN OLD-FASHIONED CAMP MEETING

In America, camp meetings have been part of our culture for centuries. In fact, most Protestant churches have a long rich tradition of holding them. Even the generally secular Chautauqua gatherings were little different from the Christian camp meetings structure-wise.

The Lodge at Camp Hope

For a while it appeared that camp meetings would be snuffed out by our secular culture, however, it’s amazing to see how many churches stubbornly refuse to give them up. It is my personal belief that the American pendulum (both the U.S. and Canada are alike Americans) has ideologically swung so far to the left that it has reached the point where there almost has to be a course correction. Especially is this true in the more conservative heartland outside the mega-cities. I submit that the continued existence of camp meetings is part of this cultural phenomenon.

Next week, I’ll tell you what it’s like to attend a camp meeting in this new millenium.

 

 

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Travelers Who Never Leave Home

BLOG #37, SERIES #8

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

TRAVELERS WHO NEVER LEAVE HOME

September 13, 2017

Yes, it’s not only possible but it is far more common than one might think. Indeed, there are millions of these vicarious travelers, men and women who travel only in their minds. Many of them read our blogs and tell me how much they enjoy the travel blogs and stories (42 and counting) that bear my name.

There are many reasons for stay-at-home traveling. Perhaps the #1 reason has to do with the fact that we tend to marry opposites. Which is probably a good thing: otherwise wimps would perpetuate wimps, spendthrifts would marry spendthrifts and be forced to file for bankruptcy every other month; shy people would marry shy people and never leave the house if they could help it; lazy people would marry lazy people—and starve; and boring people would marry boring people—and no one could stand getting close to either one.

Result: many a chronic traveler, by marrying a stay-at-homer, is doomed to a life of vicarious traveling, compensating by subscribing to travel magazines, reading travel books and blogs, and watching travel television and films.

Another reason has to do with health. If one of them is so crippled health-wise that actual travel is impossible, the other, more likely than not, sighs and stays home.

Yet another has to do with workaholics. They don’t travel because they are nailed to jobs (voluntarily or involuntarily). Many because they are forced to because of circumstances and choices they made, and at least as many who are unreformable workaholic martyrs (their spouses are true martyrs because they’re forced to stay at home if they wish to stay married).

Somewhat surprisingly, one reason is not because they couldn’t travel even if they wanted to. Reason being that anyone can travel short distances, even if it be by bicycle or foot. Some travelers, such as Thoreau, explore life in miniature. Thoreau famously devoted two entire years to just learning everything there was to learn about Walden Pond.

So whatever the reason why you enjoy travel (actual or vicarious), I’m honored that so many of you enjoy our travel blogs and stories. Furthermore, travel unshared would be hollow and insipid.

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Alexandre Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers”

BLOG #36, SERIES #8

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #69

ALEXANDRE DUMAS’S THE THREE MUSKETEERS

September 6, 2017

Illustration from Rand McNally, 1923

It is September, and that means summer’s over, and it’s back to work for older folk, and back to school for the young. What a perfect time to toss into the mix one of the greatest swashbuckling novels of all time: Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. I’ve read it several times, each time on the edge of my seat. Each time, I’m drained when I get to the end.

Bantam Classic – 1984

As I re-read it this time, I couldn’t help but think about how historically inaccurate much of our romantic fiction is, especially historical romances penned during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I speak principally of the myth of happily ever after romances of the nobility and aristocracy. In truth, marriage was almost always dynastic and arranged; love was something you found outside of marriage. Look no further than the Princess Diana tragedy for a case in point. Even today, in many Latin countries, the same scenarios continue to play out.

In this respect at least Dumas is historically accurate: you’ll have to dig deep to find examples of marital bliss and compatibility in the pages of this novel. Not just among the royal and semi-royal but also in the lives of those who served them.

Also, note the ruinous effects of gambling. Fans of Downton Abbey will note that it has continued to be a problem even into the twentieth century.

So fertile was Dumas publishing history and life that it almost defies short biography sketches. But Bantam produced a pretty good one for its unabridged edition:

ALEXANDRE DUMAS

(Pere) lived a life as romantic as that depicted in his famous novels. He was born on July 24, 1802, at Villers-Cotterêts, France, the son of Napoleon’s famous mulatto general, Dumas. His early education was scanty, but his beautiful handwriting secured him a position in Paris in 1822 with the duc d’Orléans, where he read voraciously and began to write. His first play, Henri Ill et sa cour (1829), scored a resounding success for its author and for the romantic movement. Numerous dramatic successes followed (including the melodrama Kean, later adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre), and so did numerous mistresses and adventures. He took part in the revolution of 1830, fathered two illegitimate children by two different mistresses, and then married still another mistress. (The first of these two children, Alexandre Dumas [fils], became a famous author also.) His lavish spending and flamboyant habits led to the construction of his fabulous Château de Monte-Cristo, and in 1851 he fled to Belgium to escape creditors. He died on December 5, 1870, bankrupt but still cheerful, saying of death, “I shall tell her a story, and she will be kind to me.”Dumas’s overall literary output reached over 277 volumes, but his brilliant historical novels made him the most universally read of all French novelists. With collaborators, mainly Auguste Maquet, Dumas wrote such works as The Three Musketeers [1843-44]; its sequels, Twenty Years After (1945) and the great mystery The Man in the Iron Mask (1848-50); and The Count of Monte Cristo [1844]. L’action and l’amour were the two essential things in his life and in his fiction. He declared he “elevated history to the dignity of the novel” by means of love affairs, intrigues, imprisonments, hairbreadth escapes, and duels. His work ignored historical accuracy, psychology, and analysis, but its thrilling adventure and exuberant inventiveness continues to delight readers, and Dumas remains one of the prodigies of nineteenth-century French literature.

Bantam Pathfinder Edition

As for the book itself, it’s about as accurate as most nineteenth century historical novels. The characterizations of Louis XIII and Richelieu are well done. Anne of Austria led an extremely sad and loveless life as queen. Buckingham is fairly well done. In real life, he was self-centered, narcissistic, caring not who he hurt as long as he had his way; he was slain by an assassin, just as in the book.

Following is Bantam’s summation of the book:

Perhaps the greatest “cloak and sword” story ever written, The Three Musketeers, first published in 1844, is a tale for all time. Pitting the heroic young d’Artagnan and his noble compatriots Athos, Porthos, and Aramis against the master of intrigue, Cardinal Richelieu, and the quintessential wicked woman, Lady de Winter, Alexandre Dumas has created an enchanted France of swordplay, schemes, and assignations. The era and the characters are based on historical fact, but the glittering romance and fast-paced action spring from a great writer’s incomparable imagination. From the perilous retrieval of the queen’s gift to her lover in time to foil Richelieu’s plot, to the melodramatic revelation of Lady de Winter’s true identity, The Three Musketeers is the unchallenged archetype for literary romance and a perennial delight for generations of readers.Bantam editors are correct: If you can find a wickeder and more malevolent female protagonist in all literature, you’re a wider reader than I.

But prepare yourself: Once you have a few early chapters under your belt, find a quiet room and settle in for one of the most unputdownable reads of your lifetime. And you’ll see for yourself why the four musketeers have become immortals all over the world.

By all means, purchase only an unabridged edition.

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Democracy Lost in Turkey

BLOG #35, SERIES #8

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DEMOCRACY LOST IN TURKEY

A SOLEMN WARNING TO AMERICA

August 30, 2017

Istanbul – The Hagia Sophia

One of our all-time-favorite cities is Istanbul, founded by the Roman emperor Constantine 1700 years ago. During our most recent cruise to Turkey, our Istanbul guide was an effervescent Turkish woman who did her best to sell the country she so loved to all those tourists who followed and listened to her as we visited historic sights in the ancient city; a city that stood as the world’s queen city for over a thousand years—and, not incidentally, the only great city that straddles two continents (Europe and Asia).

But, ominously—in the middle of her extolling the virtues of her country and the liberties its women enjoy—, a shadow came over her face, and she said, “But friends, I can’t help but worry about my country and its millions of women. The person who leads our country is determined to curtail our freedoms . . . but I’m hopeful that somehow we as a people can collectively hold on to the liberty we have enjoyed since Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish republic in 1923.”

Unfortunately, all her worst forebodings have come true. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved swiftly in the last year, to turn Turkey’s once vibrant democracy into a brutal Islamic dictatorship. And, inexorably, in the process the disenfranchising of Turkish women.

In the Sunday July 23, 2017 Denver Post, columnist Chuck Plunkett’s “A Warning From and For a Troubled Land” jumped out at me. Plunkett referenced a recent visit to Denver by exiled journalist Abdulhamit Billici, former editor-in-chief of Turkey’s pre-eminent newspaper, Zaman, which has now been snuffed out by Erdogan. The exiled editor spoke at some length with members of the Post’s editorial board. Here is the gist of what the Denver editors found out:

“Erdogan has jailed journalists, judges, intellectuals and security forces, fired tens of thousands more, shuttered two hundred news organizations, and generally made a mess of things in a country that only a few years ago served as a model free-market democracy for the region.Last March as Billici and fellow journalists were hard at work in the newsroom one Friday afternoon, “storm troopers toting serious weapons surrounded the building. When crowds gathered to protest, police hit them with water cannons and tear gas.” Police then entered the building and replaced the editorial leadership with government-controlled mouthpieces. Fearing for his life, and unsure whether his passport was still valid, Billici escaped, alone, and got across the border in the middle of night.

In Billici’s own words: “A president elected by a populist surge, deftly plays to nationalist desire for a return to the glory days of Turkish dominance—of the Ottoman Empire—finds himself enmeshed in a shady scandal after members of his inner circle are accused of taking bribes to overlook illegal actions by a foreign country.

A president who works a narrative that too many of the country’s judges, academics, journalists and human rights advocates are part of a corrupt urban elite. Indeed, part of the opposition—and therefore dangerous to the country’s future. A president who seeks to amend the constitution to consolidate power—against the will of half the people in his country—and who succeeds in doing so.”

A month after all this, a narrow margin of voters [voter fraud is suspected but cannot be proved] agreed to shift executive power from the parliament to the presidency, and to grant presidents three five-year terms, which would keep Erdogan in power until 2029.

Soberly, Billici continued, “Now the death penalty is back. Critics are tortured in jails. A state of emergency means arrests can occur for the most dubious of charges, and no one believes the courts are independent of Erdogan.”

Then Billici concludes with, “In hardly any time at all, a functioning democracy responsible to the people has been dismantled and replaced by a strong man tyrant whose power depends on dividing the nation into loyalists and enemies.

What happened in Turkey is an extreme result of what happens when populist movements and the opportunistic politicians who enthrall them lose sight of what’s important to maintain in their tear-it-all-down zeal. Concepts like democracy and free speech, respect for the institutions that provide checks and balances and the rule of law are too easy to shed while in the throes of raw emotion and anger.”

The Post editorial team then added its own coda: “You don’t really think it could happen. And then you meet someone who just lived it first-hand.”

* * * * *

As I read Billici’s heartbreaking summation of the fall of one of the world’s great democracies, I was reminded of what members of a conclave of prelates from around the world concluded after considerable discussion: A few years ago they concluded that they were seriously worried about America. As America continues to lose reading households (where books, magazines, and newspapers are accessed in order to know how and who to vote for), and basing voting decisions on 30-second attack ads put out by anonymous sources—they seriously doubted that America’s democracy can long survive.

Forewarned is forearmed. But fewer and fewer Americans bother to read anymore, so our current freedoms are anything but a given.