Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Who is to Occupy Wall Street?

Occupy Wall Street is a 12 days long protest taking place at the Liberty Plaza, New York, not very far from its original target. On occasion the crowd there gets organized and stages walk outs, circling the sidewalks near and around what had become the symbol financial corruption in the United States. I am blessed with the fact that the Liberty Plaza is where I transfer from the metro to the express bus, twice a week. Thus far I was able visit the protest more than 10 times, mostly around the hours of 7.30 am and 7.30 pm. In its initial beginning, the protest drew thousands of people, but afterwards only a handful of participants remained in the park. Throughout the week their numbers ranged from as little as a few dozens to several hundreds, depending on the call they were able to send out, and the response they were able to gather. When I started to follow them on the twitter, they had around 3000 followers; today the number is swelled into 14,000 and steadily growing. Originally I was surprised how little media coverage the protest received, but this is no longer the case. Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Rosanne Barr and Cornell West have visited the protesters and it has been mentioned by the media frequently since last Sunday, when a police officer used pepper spray on a group of peaceful protesters.
Last week, when the media coverage was still low, I saw a rather disturbing picture of the protest in the paper, depicting it almost like a juvenile orgy. I emailed a few columnists there, complaining about it and asking why they could not talk about it rather than condescendingly portraying it with such images. The ensuing email exchanges inspired me to write these paragraphs. Only Clyde Haberman and Ginia Belefante responded to my emails. Clyde Haberman’s reply was near condescending. He wrote “Actually, we’ve covered them every day, in the newspaper on Sunday and every day on City Room, our on-line blog. Aren’t we endlessly told that on line is where young people read these days?” In his view, so it seemed, this protest was about the young people, to whom the New York Times catered mainly electronically, whereas the print readers did not need to know about it (presumably because they were old), except, of course on the weekends, when the Americans notoriously read the least amount of newspapers. Ginia Belefante was more articulate, and wrote that she was working on a large piece to be published on September 25, and asked me if I was a grounded supporter or observing from afar. Finding out that I was an occasional follower, she ensured me that this protest was not as relevant as I believed, and if I had spent enough time around it I would have realized that they were an aimless bunch. When I pointed at how the Guardian hired Amy Goodman to write a column about the protest, she argued that they got some of their facts wrong. When I asked her what these facts were, and gave a list of the facts that I was familiar with, such as the harassment and the arrest of dozens of activists and the confiscation of recording devices and computers, she stopped responding to my emails.
On September 25, Sunday, the day after the police arrested a larger number of protesters and used teargas, the New York Times still went on with their scheduled essay by Ginia Belefante. Not to my surprise, she was heavily criticized for her lack of consciousness, understanding and solidarity. To be honest, I have never been a big fan of the New York Times, and subscribed this year, because my wife insisted on it. The above incident made me think that it is a newspaper that lacks any desire to promote change or progress in our country, and mainly stands as a relic of the old media erected to support the Democratic Party, which has become a co-opted institution serving the financial elite. However, there was something shocking going on. As a media giant, the New York Times failed to recognize what was the true strength of this protest.
Occupy Wall Street is organized by a group of alternative media/internet activists. They are the creators of an extremely successful journal titled Adbusters, which attacks commercialism and capitalism, while generating serious advertising revenues to support its self. Moreover, in this public protest, they joined forces with the Internet activists known as the Anonymous. Together, the Adbusters and the Anonymous constitute a media team far from incompetent and aimless. As one of their participants explained it to me, their main goal is to start a paradigm shift. They want people to question capitalism and unregulated markets. They are not romantic visionaries. They want a grassroots socialism generated by people for the people. They want people to understand that the form economy we are practicing is flawed.
The fact that they are talking about a paradigm shift shows how smart they are. They seem to have read their Michael Foucault and Noam Chomsky, learned that a peaceful movement must establish its strength via discourse, and aware that the Internet and independent media is their best option to organize something both grassroots and international. And, history tells us that a paradigm shift is no small thing.
A few hundred years ago, the transformation of power from the oligarchs into the middle and upper classes, which was initiated by the American Revolution and French Revolution, also relied on a paradigm shift. Both revolutions used pamphlets and newspapers, what was the independent media of their time, to raise consciousness and support. During the following century, many kings and sultans were replaced by the abstract notion of nation and national sovereignty. Today, it is rudimentary that we live in a nation state, with its preferred interpretation of citizenship and history. It is rudimentary that we live in a nation state where the economy and politics are governed by the middle and upper classes.
Down at the Liberty Plaza, a group of Americans are busy on a media desk, trying to grow their protest base. Like their forefathers, they know they are not acting in a vacuum. They know the spirit of revolution is everywhere, from Bahrain to Detroit. Like their forefathers, they know they are young and privileged subjects of a global economy. They know they are exceptionally lucky. They are mixed bunch, who also believe they lack liberty and self-determination, and they are brewing alternative economic ideas. Some old fashion newspapers think these kids are not worth much attention.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Turkey, Israel and Kurdistan?

By Murat Cem Menguc

The leaders of the European Union must be grateful that they never allowed Turkey to join. The recent crisis between her and Israel could have easily transformed into something humiliating for the conservative governments of France, Germany, Italy and United Kingdom, which is pretty much the Europe that would have mattered. Imagine what would have happened if the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sent the Israeli envoy back to Tel Aviv and stated that from now on the Italian army will escort aid flotillas to Gaza. Or better, try to visualize him visiting first Cairo, and then crossing the border into Gaza to shake hands with a few members of the Hamas. It was about to happen in the Turkish case and right before the United Nations is going to vote on recognizing Palestine as a state.

During the recent scuffle between Turkey and Israel, one thing became clear; Turkey is a regional asset far bigger than even it could have imagined. Its stable economy puzzles and generates jealousy among the European states who are struggling with serious monetary crises, like Greece, Portugal and Spain. Its blunt unilateral relations with the US are one of kind among the Muslim nations, making many envious and infuriating Israel. Its democratically elected government’s capability of dictating its will on the historically arrogant Turkish Military invokes admiration and discontent, both at home and abroad.

Who would have thought that once its secret service aiding Turkey to capture the leader of the Kurdish insurgency, today Israel could draft a Plan C to aid the Kurdish insurgency and destabilize Turkey, so we all can return to the previous epoch of friendly alliance? Who could have thought that Kurds, despised by Turks at all levels, still fighting to express themselves in their own language, still fighting to name its own children in its own language, and considered a nuisance to the political establishment of the entire region burning with revolutionary upheaval deliver Israel what it needs? Who could have thought in the grand scheme of things, the Israeli Foreign Ministry would pull the Kurdish card so it can “normalize” its relations with its strongest regional ally? In all honesty, only a schmuck like the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman could have imagined such fantasy. Surely, all our old friends whose houses we set on fire return to us as friends again.

One of the major lessons of the Hebrew Bible appears to be lost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu’s lot: times change and one must adapt to change. Israeli conservative political elite, having grown used to considering itself beyond the influence of history, is ignoring what is happening at their door step. The Middle East is no longer what it used to be. The same can be said about Europe and the US. The economic system which drives our daily lives, which used to rely and support the well-established local and international meritocracies, is in trouble. Even the top practitioners of capital accumulation are disillusioned with the world we live in today. The unequal distribution of wealth is grotesque, and everything in the news suggests that the masses are discontent. Everyone wants to live in a better world, where there is affordable food, housing, education, healthcare and natural environment. Enter Israel, where an out-of-date political elite is perpetuating a dangerously out-of-touch vision. One wonders if Netanyahu really thinks the Arab spring is a uniquely Arab phenomenon. Is the irony of the recent protests wholly lost on the Israeli conservative elite, that a nation, which is illegally occupying the land of another nation, was protesting that it cannot afford its own homes? More terribily, what was the Plan D? What were they planing to do if using the Kurds wouldn't work?
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Monday, September 5, 2011

Zanga Zanga Kurdistan?

By Murat Cem Mengüç

The expression zanga zanga (alley by alley), coined by the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, is strikingly accurate in terms of the nature of not just Libyan but most of the Middle Eastern uprisings. Whether he will become the winner or the loser of the conflict in Libya, Qaddafi seems to be well aware of his battlefront, i.e. the alleyways. The first time I heard the expression zanga zanga, I could not help but remember a harrowing paragraph from Franz Fannon’s The Wretched of the Earth:

“The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire. It is a town of niggers and Arabs. The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession – all manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive, “They want to take our place.” It is true, for there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place.”

Neither with the intention of offending nor with a desire to put words into anyone’s mouth, I quote Fanon’s words simply because they encapsulate a reality far too important to be ignored. What we are witnessing in the Middle East today, even though the historical context could suggest we are somewhat beyond colonialism, is revolts springing from native towns. So far, in the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Syrian revolts, there are no dominant insurgent groups who are long time opponents of the existing dictators, who have lived in the wilderness for years, and who finally, with popular support, begun to descend into the city squares. There are no Havanas, Moscows, or even Tehrans here, where the final confrontation between the ruling elite and a popular organized group to be showcased. Peasants are not involved, we are told by the Egyptian sociologists. Besides the mercenaries, the soldiers are reluctant, we are informed by the Libyan eyewitnesses. This is a people’s movement, we are informed by Syrian observers. And, from Tunis to Damascus, the oppositions are made of not ideologically indoctrinated young men and women in guerilla uniforms but composed of city dwellers, such as vegetable vendors, unemployed accountants, teachers, housewives and doctors.

For most of the Middle East, the next big curiosity is how the situation in Syria may unfold. For the Turks, on the other hand, a new front is opening, and zanga zanga. Since the beginning of the summer, slowly but surely, the Kurdish liberation movement started to resemble its neighboring revolts. Before the June elections, Kurdish political leaders warned the Turkish government of this possibility, and gave or delivered a deadline, June 15th, to either normalize the relationship with the insurgents (regarding the issues of amnesty and return), or face a new phase of confrontation. The government’s response was grotesque. First the Kurdish party was banned from the elections. Then, its 60 or so members, who ran and won as independent candidates, were individually forbidden from politics. Presently, attacks by the Turkish nationalist street tugs on the Kurdish population are a daily occurrence too. In other words, what used to be a war between the Turkish military and a communist guerilla movement is becoming an ethnic confrontation. In the cities like İstanbul, Ankara, Izmir or Bursa, communities are turning against each other.

The ruling AKP, having won the election, became bolder, it seems, and it has so far remained unresponsive or mocked the suggestions that the state should bargain with Kurds. Furthermore, emboldened with having brought the Turkish military under their yoke, the AKP government is acting arrogantly. Recently, they have announced a full-fledged war against the Kurdish guerillas, in what appears to be a joint program with the Iranian authorities. A respected politician from the opposition party CHP, Sezgin Tanrıkulu, described the new phase of the confrontation as the first civil war in the history of the Republic, given that for the first time in Turkish history, a democratically elected government decided to wage war against its own citizens. Turkish military have hit insurgency positions in both Turkey and Iraq, since the guerillas have ended their cease-fire agreement after the June 15th deadline.

Those who are familiar with the history of the conflict would know that jabal jabal (mountain by mountain) rather than zanga zanga best applies to the previous epochs of the insurgency. However, in the past, the conflict was between the autonomous Turkish military, who rarely paid any heed to the Turkish government, and a Kurdish communist guerilla movement. Today, it is not clear who is hit where, and some Kurdish communities have jointly set themselves as human shields against the all out assault on their militants. During the previous decades, the conflict sometimes drew near to the historically Kurdish cities, but it was also a known fact that the guerillas refused to battle in their hometowns while the Turkish military used them as centers of scare tactics and propaganda. However, there have been several incidents in these cities, in the recent past, and the present campaign is threatening to transform them into zones of conflict. Unlike the Western cities, like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa, these cities are native towns, in the most Fanonian sense of the word. The natives who have been, for many generations, dreaming of taking the settlers place, inhabit them. Moreover, organized armies are notoriously ineffective in city centers, and the Turkish military failed for over 30 years to subdue the Kurdish insurgency when it was a mountain phenomenon. As a critique of Qaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya, or Assad’s totalitarianism in Syria, as well as a fervent supporter of the Egyptian revolution, the leaders of the Turkish democracy should know better than bringing this ethnic confrontation into the town squares.
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