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Presence & Mystery

The Signal
“Life is infinitely stranger,” Sherlock Holmes once insisted to Watson, “than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outrè results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.”
It’s an ironic proposition from an imaginary character. Watson would challenge Holmes on the merits, but he couldn’t entirely say what we might be thinking: If life is really that much more extraordinary than fiction, why would there be such a market for the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes? The thing is, Holmes isn’t speaking as a consumer of fiction; he’s speaking as a detective. He’s saying that life is inherently more complex, and complexly connected, than anything we could ever make up.
That much seems undeniably true. Yet it’s an idea profoundly at odds with a dominant spirit in mainstream media today. While the world breaks and shifts and reconnects around us in infinitely strange ways, news analysis and opinion increasingly give us narratives, valorize storytelling, and offer certainties to win our trust with in a time of inescapable uncertainty—journalism for consumers, not for detectives.
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Why does U.S. politics seem to be shifting so quickly right now? Julia Azari on Democratic achievements, Republican setbacks, and a changing landscape for this year’s midterm elections.
Ryan Stone
Ryan Stone
American politics has changed dramatically since the beginning of the summer. Two months ago, U.S. President Joe Biden faced the widespread public sentiment that his presidency was in trouble—flagging, maybe already failed. His approval rating was below 40 percent. His legislative agenda was stalled in Congress. Polling showed that most Democratic voters didn’t want him to seek re-election in 2024. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its transformative decision to end a nationwide right to an abortion in America—overturning Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In one sense, the decision was a victory for the Republican Party. Yet in another, it risked the party’s standing among American voters, most of whom oppose the Dobbs ruling and don’t favor massive restrictions on abortion rights. You could see this in the heavily Republican state of Kansas earlier this month, when an overwhelming majority of voters rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment to end their statewide right to abortion. All of a sudden, with midterm elections coming this fall, the Republicans look to be on the defensive on a central issue in America’s culture wars. Until recently, they led the Democrats in “generic ballot” polling about which party should control Congress next year, but now the two are tied. The president meanwhile remains unpopular, yet things are looking up for him in some ways: He’s benefiting from good economic news and a number of legislative victories over the past few weeks—including the $750 billion Inflation Reduction Act he signed into law on Tuesday to addresses climate change, healthcare, and tax policy. How are all these developments affecting U.S. politics?
Julia Azari is an associate professor and assistant chair in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. To Azari, the shifting political winds in America favoring the Democratic Party this summer are likely driven by the Dobbs decision more than anything else—though they also likely have to do with the increasing extremism and decreasing political experience of Republican candidates across the country. The Democrats have managed some substantial legislative accomplishments, Azari says—especially considering their small majorities in Congress and the difficult forces of political polarization—but it’s too soon to know what role these accomplishments will play in swaying voters this year. Beyond the fall’s midterm elections, and looking ahead to the next presidential election in 2024, Azari sees both the major U.S. political parties as grappling with fundamental questions about their identities—about not only who should lead them but what should they stand for.
Why does Turkey seem to be getting ready to invade northern Syria? Henri Barkey on the tangled interests that will determine whether intensifying military operations turn into war.
Osman Koycu
Osman Koycu
Air strikes have been hitting Syria from inside Turkey since late July, targeting the Kurdish militia known as the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel—the People’s Protection Units. For years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he intends to destroy the YPG, and in recent months he’s warned increasingly of a Turkish incursion into northern Syria to do it. The YPG controls territory in the country’s north, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, outside the reach of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But YPG fighters are mostly Syrian Kurds, with Arabs and some foreigners in the mix, and the militia doesn’t have any ambitions in Turkey at all. Meanwhile, the YPG has become an ally of the United States, which armed and supported it as it helped defeat the Islamic State in 2014 and 2015, and the group has since continued to work closely with the U.S. to oust the Assad regime in Syria—an objective the allies have shared with Turkey. So what is Erdoğan doing?
Henri Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the author of five books about Turkey and the Kurdish people. As Barkey sees it, Erdoğan is attacking the Syrian Kurds for reasons of both domestic politics and state interest. The political motivation might be more urgent, Barkey says, because the Turkish president is facing reelection next year and has a pressing incentive to create the impression of a major military victory—turning voters’ attention away from Turkey’s struggling economy, with inflation near 80 percent and the country running short on foreign reserves. Over the longer term, Erdoğan wants to prevent Turkish Kurds from gaining autonomy in the country’s southeast—and to that end, he also wants to see the YPG, and any autonomous Kurdish rule, disappear in Syria too. The only reason why Erdoğan hasn’t invaded Syria already, Barkey says, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected the plan—because he fears Turkey would try to keep any territory it captured. Still, it’s not clear whether Putin will keep saying no, knowing how serious a rupture he could cause between Turkey and the U.S. by saying yes.
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