Emma Morano was the oldest living person in the world with an extensively proven birth record. Until last Saturday, she was the only person left in the world who was born with in an 18xx year. Think about this: the set of human beings on the planet that existed when she was born, have all died. Her birth was closer to the French revolution than it is to the Arab Spring. Within the span of her life were encompassed billions of lives who came and went. She has, naturally, been around longer than a few dozen countries. In a certainly deranged way, I had been expecting news of her death for some time, since rarely anyone crosses 117. The title of ‘oldest person alive’ – always held by a woman, in fact – is transferred every 2.5 years, on average. With the unusually advanced age comes a variety of titles. The current oldest living person is Violent Brown, from Jamaica, and she is the last remaining former subject of Queen Victoria.
Albeit a century apart, she was also a 90’s kid like me. But times were completely different back then. The 1890s were a garden where many seeds were sprouting. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published; Einstein met his wife; F.C. Barcelona was established; Al Capone, Nabakov, Hemingway and Hitchcock were born. It was the year when Trotsky would read Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia and become a Marxist and the overtures of the Manifesto were playing through the streets of Vienna. Iskandar Mirza – the first president of Pakistan was but a toddler then. Australia would be formed two years later after the British colonies there would federate. Philippines would drive Spaniards out after years of and establish the First Philippine Republic, shortly before they would be occupied by the United States resulting in the loss of over 200,000 Filipino lives.
A time of innovative marvel with improvements in steam engine, electrical and mechanical engineering that would pave the way for the billions of cars that would come out of factories, it was also when Henri Becquerel had discovered radioactivity winning him the Nobel Prize some years later and Rutherford had just discovered alpha and beta particles,. Émile Durkheim published his groundbreaking study ‘Suicide’, cementing his legacy as the father of sociology while Max Planck posited his quantum hypothesis. As the following decade of my 90s marked the infamy of terrorism in the public eye, the decade after Ms. Morano’s were marked by a rise in attempted and successful assassinations – King Umberto I of Italy, Wilhelm II of Germany, President McKinley of the U.S.A, Carlos I of Portugal, and Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi of Japan.
The youth had different value systems too. 100 years ago, 16 year old boys were getting ready to be deployed to territories and countries – places they had merely heard of mostly while studying in one of many expanding universities that had to accommodate the burgeoning middle class. Enemies, and people in general, would be dropping in from the air, and surviving, for the first time in human history thanks to the invention of fixed-wing airplanes, motor engines and parachutes. They would be aided in this endeavor by the marvelous invention that would enable them to give and receive orders with each other over long distances, and would change the face of warfare – the radio. While the war itself involved the mundane killings like any other, the cause of the war itself is debated and interesting.
At the start of this war, a young Ataturk – our national hero – had just begun his military academy life and the Ottoman Empire was nearing its end after half a millennium of expansion and cultural flourishing. With Ataturk at the helm, Turkey had started its near-century long experiment with democracy and modernism with an Islamic background. As of last Saturday, President Erdogan has begun his march towards concentrating powers in his hands, aided ironically, by the very democracy of his country. Many are already foretelling a grim return to the medieval Ottoman customs and have been aided in this regard by the Islamic extremism that is stemming from its neighbor, Syria.
However, it is far from certain, or even probable, whether Erdogan – empowered by the democratic dissolution of democracy – will be the dictatorial villain he is portrayed to become by the mainstream media. It must, however, be noted that much of the votes for ‘Yes’ came from the rural areas while an overwhelming majority came from the much more liberal urban cities and metropolitan areas, greatly mimicking the recent U.S. elections. With that said, dictatorships aren’t bad in themselves. In fact, I believe they work better in some countries until the political system has stabilized, suitably enough to create an oligarchic majority of no more than 4 major parties. But while dictatorships have always existed in some form throughout history, what marks Emma’s life is the global diffusion of democracy.
At a time when dictatorships and even benign monarchies are being replaced, Erdogan has managed to pull of a rare move in history. Barring this democratic removal of democracy, Emma’s life marks the time when the ideas and practice of democracy truly flourished across the globe. But will her death mark the beginning of its end? Far from it. Even though we have seen the consequences of populism in Europe during and after the refugee migration, democracy is still the least cracked of rosy glasses available through which we assess the world and make decisions for the future. If Hindu mythology is to be believed, Emma will reincarnate based on her karma. Western Europe and its allies can only hope that democracy too will transmigrate into a stronger system after its supposed death in Turkey. For me and other Turks living through this sordid time, for better or worse, this is the only life we have.