When I was in elementary school, hanging in my classroom were prints of George Washington and Abe Lincoln. Garrison Keillor describes them best when he says, "They were like an old married couple. I was always fond of Lincoln. He looked like somebody you could tell your problems to. Washington always looked like he had a headache." Exactly.
As children, we were taught stories about Washington which in fact were, by that time, little more than confusing legends. His honesty was proven by his cutting down of a cherry tree and confessing to his father. For children this goodie-goodie act hardly cut the mustard. First of all, had I conducted such vandalism, my parents would hardly have been impressed by my honesty. I would have been shown the value of a handy cherry branch, I suspect. It was all a bit ethereal and hard to conceive, even for a child of eight who was unusually gullible.
That poor exhausted Lincoln was more to my taste. Honest Abe. Tall and ugly and ill-at ease but with a certain glint in his eye that seemed to hint at vast empathy for human failings. Minding his own business, taking in a little light entertainment with the wife, having freed the slaves and saved the union earlier that day, shot in the back of the head, poor man, by some attention-seeking maniac actor. This kind of high drama was something that children could appreciate far more than broken cherry trees and a midnight crossing a river in winter.
The Turks have Mustafa Kemal, better know as Ataturk- that is, the father of Turks. You cannot live in Turkey without seeing his face somewhere, everywhere and even this is an understatement. At first, before I studied his biography, I dismissed it as a peculiarity of the Turks, just something that Turks did and usually left it at that. (This is the only way to adapt when living in a foreign land sometimes. Study, shrug and move on.)
He is beloved. Yes, sometimes this adoration is in the form of the blind, flag-waving kind. Sometimes it is based on well-rehearsed platitudes drummed into the young minds. However, more often than not, inside the average Turkish heart, there is deep respect- like nothing I have ever seen in my own country- for Kemal and his philosophy and his belief in the Turkish spirit. Most amazing to me, this kind of admiration cuts across generational lines. It is a rare event whenever a grandfather, father and son can agree on anything in the USA.
Every year on November 10 at exactly 9:05 in the morning, the moment of his death, the nation pauses for one minute to pay respect for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It is a voluntary act and has never failed to impress me over the years. In practically every town, there is a statue or a square named after this man and nine times out of ten, you will see his portrait in a businessman's office. (One theory: the choice of portrait can determine the overall atmosphere of the office.)
As a father-figure and national hero, Kemal certainly has more going for him than, say, Woodrow Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt - fine men in their own right. (If you do not know much about Kemal, then reading several books is certainly no waste of time, even if you are not particularly interested in Turkey.)
The scale of his reforms were as breath-taking then as they are today. Imagine, after driving out occupying coalition troops, establishing a new form of government, creating a philosophy of secularism where once was an antiquated and backward religious authority- after all that.. imagine your leader attempting then to change the entire system of writing. Even this does not do justice to all his accomplishments for the Turkish people. In the very least, taking what might very well have amounted to a despotism, and creating a secular republic from the ashes of the Ottomans is no small feat. Among a majority of Turks, his concepts, are valued as much today as when Atatürk was alive.
In the West, we spend a lot of time tearing down heroes and reducing them to human scale. It is a national preoccupation, I suppose. Our skepticism being proof enough that we are smarter than our parents and grandparents. We sit back with folded arms and a smug smile when we see other countries and their national heroes.
Europeans, even more than Americans, tend to look at this hero-worship as a inevitable prelude to fanatic nationalism This is a harsh and shallow conclusion, I think. Turks, fortunately, did not suffer the disastrous results of the personality cults as Europeans did. They have no reason to see this admiration in such a negative perspective as, say, the average German or French would. The events of the last hundred years have made Europeans question and reject an unchallenged devotion to any ideology and to any demagogic espouser. The rule in Europe generally appears to be, as John Monash once said, "No man is a hero in his own country." Not so in Turkey, at least as far as Mustafa Kemal is concerned.
When it comes to fanaticism or rabid nationalism, I am not so worried about Turks becoming blinded by their hero worship. When I first came to Turkey, I recall witnessing a small town rally by a candidate for prime minister. There was the usual excess and noise and behind the speaker, was a building size cloth poster of Mustafa Kemal and next to it, was the candidate's. A week later, his opponent came to the same town, stood in the same town square, making his same droning speech and behind him.. that's right, the huge face of Atatürk and the huge face of the candidate. So I am fairly convinced that Turks will not be rushing to join, in some kind of wild nationalistic fervor, any politician that tries to use this hero for his own purposes. Been there, done that.
Every country should have its own sources of pride and there is a necessary amount of pride that every country should be allotted from their national icons. We have a need in the heart for a heroic figure from our nation's past. It is like taking pride in claiming kin.
Perhaps such heroes- or rather, the idea of their existence. spur us into believing that we, presumably, are made of the same stuff, may, when called upon, achieve similar results, if only on a smaller scale. At the end of the day, a world without heroes is one where it is impossible to believe that men can decide their own course of action. A world without the possibility of heroes reminds me of a quote from Robert Frost's "Death of a Hired Man,
..nothing to look backward to with pride, And nothing to look forward to with hope, So now and never any different.