Tuesday, July 31, 2007

All Revolutionary and Surging Elements

Artists seem always to be battling with the past, furiously. At the Kunstsammlung in Chemnitz, a group of German expressionists who called themselves Die Brucke, "The Bridge", are battling with the future. "The Bridge" was not intented to be a change in artistic style (although it was to some extent a break from the expressionist work of, say, Munch) but a bridge from the present to a better future. If we can guess from their paintings what the better future would be like, it was therefore controlled, unsophisticated, and somewhat crude. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the founder of the The Bridge, paints people as childlike and ugly. The other three expressionists paint in a similar style. In general I think they used too many colors. But what if this is exactly what the artists wanted. Indeed, they would have most likely said these ugly things about their own present age.

"People today are childlike."
"They are ugly."
"There are too many colors in modern life!"

With this in mind it makes sense that their paintings were intended to depict, not the future, but their present age. Now this thesis is beginning to sound more interesting! If what your goal is, as an artists guild, is to make the viewer revolt at your art, then you can succeed in that quite easily. But to have your viewer understand that this is exactly what you want him to do, exactly what you expect of him, then perhaps the reactions will be a bit different. After all, contrary to Plato, the artist is only reflecting modern society the way things appear to him. So when you gaze at his art, you ought not say what an awful bunch artists Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl are. You ought instead to say what an awful age you live in. And not much has changed since Die Brucke painted people in wildly expressionist senses. People today are childlike. They are ugly. If things really are the way our contemporaries paint things, then it appears all our metanarrative art projects have failed. Today art is a series of reflections on failed past art experiments.

Paraphrases About the Finding of a Glove

These pictures were apparently based on images which came to Max Klinger in dreams after finding a glove at an ice-skating rink. In each of the ten etchings a man is struggling over a glove that he has found at the rink. Using the leitmotic device of the glove, belonging to a woman whose face we never see, Klinger seems to anticipate the work of Freud on fetish objects. The glove, a symbol of the protagonist's (or perhaps Klinger's) romantic yearnings, performs the role that we might have thought the woman to fulfill herself. So, in effect, the glove is a "sliding signifier" in the semiotic sense: a signifier without a signified. That is, the identity of the woman is never known. The sign of the glove always points to another sign, its owner, yet this identity is never revealed. The last plate is enigmatic as ever. An insect-like Cupid sits mischievously next to the glove, seeming to await the next victim of romantic Victorian fetishism.

Degenerate Art for the Degenerate City

How fitting that Hitler's famous quip about virtually all "modern art" being degenerate would come to be embodied in the East German city of Chemnitz, a degenerate city that still houses a giant head of Karl Marx in its city center?

Fool's Milk

This plattenbau

With all its prefabricated concrete

Must be hiding something

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Adventurism and Personal Identity

Human adventure is a basic theme in literature and film, etc. It is the reason why tourists begin journeys in distant places. The drive towards an adventure, or the fantasy of adventure against an unforeseeable future, lures the believing into situations and places in search of answers, ideas, experiences and things of that sort. Adventure is an ideology. If we deconstruct the idea of personal identity, as Sartre or Deleuze has, anything that we use to help contribute to our sense of personal identity is a narrative fiction, an identity fiction. In Nausea, Sartre outlines at least five possible ways that Roquentin can find meaning in his life. One of the first that he tries is a life of radical adventurism, and it fails miserably. People and places change, and Sartre seems questions at a basic level what sort of value that really has.

Bernard Wilson has this theory about ethics as being something more akin to "moral luck", because in the future (only in the future) will you have known whether you had acted ethically or not. And so it is with adventure. At this very moment I'm having a kind of adventure. I'm sitting in an internet cafe/bar in Dresden, Saxony. The Neuestadt part of the city is a quasi-Bohemian place for shisha-smoking an all-night clubbing. And this is my ideology: exploring this city alone, or in the company of other hostelers and exchanging jokes, is a way of heightening my cultural awareness involving some degree of risk. At its core it is a veil of experiences to push away an existential emergency. But there's also something quite intriguing about the rapturous thrill of travel: something like getting so involved in one's own historical period, one's own place in history, but mixing it with another's. Tomorrow I will go to Chemnitz, the post-DDR city which used to be called Karl Marx City, in search for a changing culture. Far from pushing away existential emergencies, this activity seems to embrace it fully, asking for a kind of ideology that fits a changing planet (first communist, now capitalist) in a realistic way. Not all adventure is dishonesty.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Water-Bombing of 2007

It's raining in Dresden
And my umbrella must shield me
From this destruction.

But it's nothing like
It was in nineteen forty five;
No, this is much worse.

Friday, July 27, 2007


From an animal welfare point of view, dogfighting is one of the most serious forms of animal abuse. The dogs often suffer their entire lives from wounds and constant violence. A losing dog whose fighting potential is severely damaged is usually put to death by strangulation, drowning, hanging, gun shot, electrocution, or by some other method. "Bait" animals are often used to test a dog's fighting ability and instinct. For example, trainers might use smaller dogs, or cats, or rabbits as bait for fighting dogs. The National Humane Society reports that some dog's snouts are duct-taped to prevent them from biting back at dogs in training.

The secret culture of dog fighting is usually directed related to gang involvement and community violence. Dog fighting events are indeed criminalized, and so naturally at these events other criminal organizing takes place: drug distribution, racketeering, and other criminal enterprises. Just recently, American football player Michael Vick plead guilty to running a dogfighting ring which was conducted across state lines. At his ring was discovered piles of bloody carpet, and "rape stands" which are used to force unwilling female pit bulls mate. Michael Vick's losing dogs were allegedly executed by being crushed or by electrocution. This is certainly cruel and unusual, and this is why protesters quickly gathered outside the National Football League's HQ in New York. Michael Vick ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, which is five years in prison and $250,000 in restitution, and this practice ought to be ended everywhere.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Zeppelinwiese, Nurnberg

More visits in Germany:

This planned Nazi compound in Nurnberg, which Hitler proudly declared "the largest building site in the world," was to become much larger than the city itself. Parts of the grounds are still extant. And the new Nazi Documentation Center, built by contemporary architect Peter Kulka, explores the overwhelming emotional power of the Nazi events--achieved by injecting strains of Wagnerian theater and Catholic ritual into fascist grandiosity--through exhibits covering the rise of the Third Reich and the Tribunals of 1946.

The exhibits were somewhat over-anxious to defend the "fairness" of the Nazi trials. But the Zeppelinwiese is actually the field across the lake from the Kongresshalle where Hitler addressed more than 100,000 spectators at a time. It was made famous by Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will.

But what does the Documentation Center mean to young German school children, who are supposed to visit it for educational purposes? Perhaps nothing. When I was hear there were tons high school kids running around. Dozens of students raced passed me, chatting to one another, not noticing the huge portraits of the Fuhrer above them. I don't know what they were supposed to do when they saw it. None of them saw the pictures of children, their age, dressed in uniform for Nazi Youth events. It seemed kind of odd.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Poems and Politics in Cafe Istanbul, Freiburg

My poems are pointless
Chances are they're just words on paper
--I've smoked myself silly

Friday, July 20, 2007

Freiburg Hills

Sunset in Freiburg
A heavy cloud over Europe
The world could end now.


Visit By a Woman on the Top of a Hill

In that very moment
The world had existed for us
Did she feel it too?

Graffiti is a good sign

We're beyond modernity
Graffiti is a good sign:
You must counter-act!

Die Dreisam

Feet in the river
A green balloon falls off the bridge
And lands in my lap!

*this is why I am destiny.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sort of like: romantic laundry or something

“Destined”: such a thing?

She says We were meant to meet!

(... she lives just below me...)

Spin Dry

Laundry today was cold

When I put my hands on it

A German girl startled me.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vegetable Root Argument

premise 1) Inclination towards light

premise 2) Preference for being on surfaces

conclusion) Humans are basically like plants.

Silence of the Narrative

Take a look at this article on Mashable.com that depicts places in the world where YouTube is banned. Currently only Iran and the UAE have bans, but just until recently Turkey censored the internet because of a video which insulted Ataturk as a homosexual and a belly-dancer. A Turkish user responded to the video by calling Greece the birthplace of homosexuality. The Kemalist State of Turkey then joined the chorus of military dictatorships such as Myanmar, and human rights black holes like China who also banned YouTube for criticizing its government. Turkey lifted its ban in March and Turk Telecom instantly renewed access to the site.

The EU Commission in Turkey stated in a meeting that one could not criticize a court ruling in Turkey, but at least the English gazette, Turkish Daily News, was able to bypass this. It said the courts were "trying to solve the problems of the 21st century with the methods of the 20th". It pointed out that the ban created a worldwide news story and resulted in the video collecting far more attention than if it had been ignored.

A post on Michelle Malkin's blog about the Turkey ban seemed favorable toward US Congress's House Anti-Terrorism Caucus actions to censor the internet (e.g. YouTube and LiveLeak) since it may be used to prevent videos created by "Jihadists" from widely circulating. Meanwhile, the US military has banned 13 sites like YouTube, Myspace, and Photobucket which slowdown military networks. The NYTimes has this report on insurgent propaganda on the net, and it seems the government is willing to limit civil liberties on the internet to combat any propaganda which aids terrorism.

YouTube's easily-manipulated terms of use seems to imply that its staff may remove any video they deem inappropriate for some users. Once a certain number of complaints is reached, a video must be pulled out. Since it is their property, perhaps one cannot complain, but I am very suspicious of those in the Pentagon who seek to silence the "Dhimmis" and "Jihadis" on YouTube by means of clandestine internet counter-terrorism. Lyotard wrote in The Postmodern Condition about the future instability of knowledge databanks and micro-narratives, which will be pursued and persecuted. The new wars will be fought with information, undoubtedly. And this means on the internet, where the Pentagon wages a war for the minds of the user. These narratives may co-exist in paralogy, Lyotard says, or be silenced and terrorized by more powerful narratives and language groups.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Plan for Freedom in the New American City

It’s an ominous future if you think about Mexico City or Cairo, cities which are approaching 17 million habitants or more. But the infrastructures of these very old cities, especially Cairo, Bombay, Karachi or Jakarta, etc. are still the same as they were at the beginning of the 20th century in some districts. And the actual city policy is far from considering the new problems of urban areas and the pressures on urban areas. The cities are becoming a place of confrontation, a place where the collective memory disintegrates, a place of social ruptures, a place where frustration accumulates, where people backtrack to their individual level or to the level of a group what we fearfully call communitarianism which becomes more and more important in urban areas, and not only in rural areas as it was before.

Something I've observed from staying in Freiburg (on the right) is that a city which was leveled during WWII can subsequently be rebuilt with more care in its design than most American cities, even though Freiburg was under extreme pressure to rebuild immediately after the war ended. There is a problem of a new architecture, our problem is American urbanism. Cities have to create urban areas which are a discussion forum of different social classes, a place of common undertakings, a place of parting, a place of active and positive cohabitation instead of being places of panic, places which are divided into dangerous areas and areas of comfort, but of a comfort which is more and more troubled by menaces coming from the surrounding suburbs which are difficult to control as the urban concentrations press down more and more on the governments.

European cities, even if they are large, are so much smaller than American cities. As I walk through the small and narrow streets of Freiburg, I realize that big American cities which are spread out and distant make little sense. While European cities have suburbs, they are often smaller and more compact than the American boomburgs and exurbs.

When Cameras Rule the World...

One monument at a time

Cameras are eating up the world

Mine is on standby.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Islamic Banking, or, the separation of Bank and State

Banking practices are not the same everywhere. Since the 60s there has been an increase in "Islamic Banking" throughout the Mesopotamian regions. The largest Mid-Eastern economy, Turkey, also has a separate sector for a small but expanding “participation banking” sector, which is not backed by the Central Bank. This participation banking movement is essentially Islamic Banking in Turkey. Practices such as charging interest rates on loans are considered 'making money from money', and this is forbidden in Sha'ria Law and the Hadith. Islamic banking in theory is full-reserve banking, where all the money deposited into a bank is held in the bank. Profits come from transaction costs, service fees and gains from defaulted loans (such as possessed capital or collateral) not increasing prices on loans. Dubai Islamic Bank had been acquiring smaller banks mostly in Central and Eastern Turkey, such as MNG. Turkiye Finans, another participation bank, in fact hires HSBC to evaluate offers from potential foreign partners.

The mix between Islamic and fractional-reserve banking is becoming more integrated. Islamic subsidiaries of Citigroup or HSBC are playing a large role in create a market for financing and financiers with Qur'anic laws forbidding holding fractional reserves, or sponsoring un-Islamic activities such as gambling or smoking. Citigroup's Bahrain-based Citi Islamic subsidiary was first into the market in 1996, and now leads the pack with deposits of more than $6 billion. Citi and at least 10 other Western majors dwarf the biggest locally owned rival, Al Baraka of Bahrain, worth a little more than half a billion.

Westerners are drawn to these banks by oil money. Muslims are drawn to Western banks in part by distrust of their own banks. Prominent failures, such as the 2001 collapse of Turkey's Ilhas Finance dented depositors' faith. In Turkey, the Islamic world's largest economy, the fledgling Islamic-banking sector is lobbying the state to guarantee deposits. In Malaysia, where more than 11 percent of deposits are now Sharia-compliant, local houses like Bank Muamalat are working to gain on the multinationals.

According to Islamic Banking and Finance magazine, there are $265 billion in deposits that comply with Sharia, finances included. Since 1996 Dow Jones has offered indexes of stocks vetted by Sharia scholars. Now there are more than 40 Islamic indexes, and last year Islamic stocks on average outperformed the market by 5 percent.

A generation ago, an Islamic bank was just a simple investment house that, instead of paying interest on deposits, created dividends by buying and renting out property. Sharia does of course allow you to rent and trade. Western banks are using that template to pioneer Islamic credit cards, Islamic mortgages and Islamic bonds (known as sukuks) that during the past year have financed everything from a $1 billion upgrade of Dubai airport to Pakistani government debt. As growth picks up in the Middle East, more and more Muslim-run corporations find they need sophisticated services, from bond issues to derivatives, which so far only Western banks provide. The Western banks go so far as to gain Islamic credibility by hiring Sharia scholars to sit on their boards.

There is another reason why Western banks practicing Sha’ria law are successful in Muslim nations. Small Islamic banks are less profitable and do not have reserves large enough to deal with several problems that large, profitable banks can. Rich banks can invest in a riskier banking style, but only if they have less risky banks elsewhere. For example, the Islamic banks have not yet been successful in devising an interest-free mechanism to place their funds on a short-term basis.

They face the same problem in financing consumer loans and government deficits, which is unclear what counts as collateral. The risk involved in profit-sharing seems to be so high that most of the banks have resorted to those techniques of financing which bring them a fixed assured return. As a result, there is a lot of genuine criticism that these banks have not abolished interest but have in fact only changed the nomenclature of their transactions (such as “participatory banking” which sounds more secular in Turkey.) It also is important that the Islamic banks do not have the legal support of central banks, as a lender of last resort, in their respective countries (except in Pakistan and Iran), which exposes them to great risks. To date there is no international Islamic lender of last resort.

As more international banks like Societe Generale, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and Standard Chartered enter the Islamic banking business, more interest and controversy will be raised over this issue. In the end, while this practice faces several difficult and fundamental problems, only two governments in the world, Pakistan and Iran, continue to use these banks to finance serious government projects. It is a growing practice in Turkey, but I am doubtful as to its becoming an important banking trend. Much support for the reforms since 2001 have been recognized by the Turkish population as being useful. And these reforms are connected much more in the public perception to secularism than to Islamist politicians in government.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The "Bodies" Exhibition, Prague

Under glass human heart freezes.

In the street man’s feet bleed puss.

Why’d I pay to see it?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Busy Sidewalk in Prague

Saw a bee get squished.

I knew it would happen, just watched.

Now I’m pixilated.

Racist Treaty of Lausanne

In May 1919, Atatürk began the nationalist revolution in Anatolia, organizing resistance to the peace settlement imposed on Turkey by the Allies. This was particularly focused on resisting Greek attempts to seize Smyrna and its hinterland. After the propagandized war in Gallipoli (a "friendly war") and the resulting Turk victory, the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, and the "Serbo-Croat-Slovene" states signed the peace settlement in the Treaty of Lausanne which principally redefined Turkey's borders.

There is a common misunderstanding about the treaty. It's called a "racist" treaty because it does not mention in the Protection of Minorities section anything about Kurds or Armenians. However, the language of the treaty makes clear it applies to "all inhabitants of Turkey without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion". Non-muslims will enjoy "full freedoms" and equal political and civil rights as Muslims Turks. Yet this is a symptom of a much greater problem, a persistent problem within Turkish political language and political culture. It often sounds very progressive but on the contrary it has a very unforgiving application. For example, Articles 26 through 31 of the Turkish Constitution are mildly liberal with respect to media and press rights. (Except for the Orwellian clause in 31 stating that organizations may not hold meetings exceeding their own scope and aims.) In general it sounds supportive of a free press, yet it is taboo to write on sensitive topics such as the Armenian genocide, for which several editors and activists have been assassinated, at least one as part of a military action. There are many restrictions in the penal code which outline unlawful criticism of the Turkish government, which sounds nothing like the Freedom of Thought and Opinion promised in Article 25.

Al-Farabi, the 13th century Turkish philosopher, argued that democratic societies fail because they lack a guiding group, or principle. He said it was the philosopher's duty to establish a "virtuous" society by healing the souls of the people, establishing justice and guiding them towards "true happiness". This can be interpreted in the same way Plato meant for a guardian class to watch over the city, or further interpreted to be a modern-day Platonic nation with the military of Turkish society as a guardian-class whose duty it is to protect the souls of the people. My argument is simple. Such a guardian class undermines the notion of rule of law and the importance of constitutions and contracts in civil society. If written laws can be dismissed or overridden by militarists, then democracy is clearly failing, and the guiding group takes control as a statist vanguard. Farabi's proto-Turkish approach is not pan-Islamism, but it is Platonic-statism. And therefore the political culture it gives rise to unsurprisingly double-speaks about what its written principles are, and what its practical ethics in the political sphere are.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ataturk Mausoleum as Text

“Listen very carefully,” our Turkish guide, Bejazit, told us as we approached a massive neo-Hittite temple structure where the body of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is buried, “beyond this point no pictures are allowed. Follow closely behind me and I will explain what is happening, but please do not take pictures.” If the Antikabir as it is called in Ankara were the only tribute to Ataturk it would be less pretentious to have built a thunder-god temple in his memory. Except in every city throughout Anatolia enormous simulacra depict the face of this one man who led the Turkish War of Independence (1919--1923) . Outside, a man on a marble stone-cleaning machine continuously buffered the flat floors of the temple. Inside, we were under constant observation by the hundred-or-so soldiers staffed there. For fear of living in a Turkish prison cell for the next two years I kept my camera safely in its bag.

The temple itself, from the outside, is an architectural pastiche of modern Turkish motifs and ancient Hittite-styled cut-stone buildings and ceremonial grounds. Outside we took pictures of each other smirking and standing just as solemnly and rectilinearly as the guards who stood along the temple’s many rows of tall, thick pillars. In conversational Turkish it is common to ask people you meet where they are from (Nerede yaşiyorsunuz?) before you ask their name or their impression of the weather. As if completely disinterested, no one asked this question at the temple, unlike the inquisitive shopkeepers in Istanbul or Cappadocia. Their faces reflected their strong national ethic and concentration on service-work—such as guarding the nation’s most important shrine: its founder’s mausoleum. The Turkish Armed Forces views itself as a kind of Atlas, a god carrying the nation’s hard burdens on its shoulders.

Making our way to the entrance of the museum, one of the German student program directors, Karin, turned to me and said quietly, “This is fascist architecture.” The symmetry, the size, the purpose: all of it testified to its fascist similarities (pictured left). It was as though the goal was to make the individual feel very little self importance. We continued to comment about the size and austerity of the structure, speculating about what Hitler or Stalin's reactions might have been had they visited. “Hitler would have loved this place,” Karin whispered, “except he would have made it more elaborate, perhaps by adding a bowl with fire in the center or something like that.” Karin admitted to me at this moment that in her youth she had grown up under the Communist Dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceaşescu. The Ataturk museum was almost too painful.

Kemalist architecture is an odd mixture of fascist, social realism and modern architecture. It also has no futuristic projection, and therefore it expresses little concern for progressive or futurist dimensions, unlike socialist popular art which is noticeably obsessed with the future (as depicted with peasants locking arms and singing, for example). In fact Kemalist principles were strongly reinstated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) after the government made a sharp turn in the direction of socialism in the 60s. Another important feature of Kemalism is its self-importance by means of showing how strong its empires had been in the past while simultaneously being anti-Ottoman, its most recent predecessor. Nietzsche once said that every generation rebels against its fathers and make friends with its grandfathers. This certainly seems true for Kemalism, which artistically aligns itself with the thousands year-old Hittite Empire and whose capital city, Hattusa, was not far from Ankara. The new art draws its content primarily from its passionate submersion in “the essence of the national being” and it is turned inward and against the future. Along the walls of the temple in Ankara one can see images of Hittite peoples and animals performing ceremonious acts directed towards the centerpiece, where Ataturk is resting. Kemalism is therefore strongly nostalgic but not insofar as it distinguishes itself from the pre-republican empire-building projects.

For example, as a state-builder, Ataturk took great measures to distance himself from the sultanate and the Ottomans, (e.g. by moving the capital city away from Istanbul, the seat of the Ottomans.) Yet everywhere there is a cacophonic mixture of fragments of the former and present regimes: where once there was a statue or head of the emperors and sultans, now everywhere there is a statue or head of the Great Reformer, Ataturk. Just as every tragedy recurs as farce, so all the former Ottoman symbols have been transformed into their ironic opposites—the symbols of the secular state.

The museum displays similar items to those at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul—national jewels, swords, treasures, important artifacts of Turkish identity. As I made my way deeper into the nationalist labyrinth, however, voices from the lugubrious chorus-singing jerked me into a trance-like state. The museum seemed more like propagandistic montage to me at this point. The deafening mortar-fire soundtrack shook the leisurely mausoleum-goers and gave an added dimension of romanticism and revisionism. Unlike other museums which housed dead artifacts, these artifacts were pulsing with the Turkish revolutionary zeitgeist. I became conscious of myself as a historical person, as someone embedded in a particular time and a particular place in history. I began to see things around me with a renewed sense of importance. My reaction to this encoded ideology was very inward at the time, but it seemed in general we were all stuck in some kind of mystical Kemalist knowledge system, with a particular social reality that could not be penetrated by external truths; such as the principles of Western liberal democracy.

The first hallway had large murals along the sides that simulated a battlefield, and the further we went the walkways were transformed into theatrical stages where bullet shells rested, manikin soldiers crouched behind walls, and trenches opened around us, exposing us to the seediness of war and violence. The speaker system blared the thundering of intense machine-gun fire and explosive charges from every direction. Never had I seen anything so elaborate and nationalist like this in my life. Our group frenetically paced around the images before us until being led into a larger hallway replete with realist portraits of the important military commanders. Their uniforms were green, their hats tall, and their faces shone in the light as if angels had given them glory. I withdrew from the group a bit. It was like witnessing a live military performance, except their faces hung on the wall in neat phantasmagoric rows having been dead for several decades or more. It was a living performance no less. Bejazit told the other students stories of officers who were several minutes behind the revolutionary schedule and therefore would shoot themselves in the head. No story seemed too tall to be believed in these walls.

After comparing art styles online, it seems the golden murals on the walls were imitations of Stalinist social-realist art (pictured right)—except that the Kemalists added three-dimensional heads of fatherly Ataturk which jutted out like a knife in an apple. These images culminated at the end of another long hallway with a monumental, triumphant portrait several meters in height of Mustafa Kemal mounted on his horse, pointing the way to victory. (Which is why he was named Ghazi—“the victorious”). I suddenly learned without apparent reason that I had been fooling myself for the entire trip up to this point. Naturally, everything they tell about in newspapers and magazines can happen in real life, but not in the same way. I felt the Western press had been naïve or perhaps dishonest about Turkey’s militaristic underbelly. I gazed into Ataturk’s Clint Eastwood eyes and felt betrayed by his nation, that his life had become a temple, and his tomb a place for secular worship. Secular blasphemy in Turkey is in fact a punishable offense. The controversy over Article 301, the Armenian genocide, the Susurluk Incident, the Dink murder, etc. pushed me in a more radical direction after I decided it was impossible to flirt with the deeply statist agenda in Turkey. How far does the rabbit hole of individual liberties go? Several past Prime Ministers, including the current PM, Erdogan, complained about a secret military command chain (JITEM) and have called this the “deep state” agenda.

All this dusty, out-dated rhetoric and presentation was simply to prepare oneself spiritually for the mausoleum itself. The deafening sound of mortar fire gone, now the happy, revolutionary singing of children filled the echoing hallways. Information tablets on the walls told the story of Ataturk’s political reforms, his benevolent policies towards women, his education reforms and so on. At one information checkpoint, a speaker system played some of Ataturk’s favorite folk songs. In my experience they were real-live Turkish children singing these songs. I was reading a small info-text on land disputes with Turkey’s neighbors when I heard behind me a mother and her two children singing out loud and, astonished, I made gestures towards them with my hands. Since I knew no words in Turkish that expressed my ideas, I wanted to convey that I was impressed they knew the songs so well, although “impressed” is not what I truly had in mind. They understood my motions and began singing louder and with more folkloric gusto. I left them shortly after that, overwhelmed, and because I was unsure about how I ought to respond to their pride without, as 301 says, insulting their Turkishness.

At last I came around a corner and was surprised to find, not a coffin, not an embalmed body like at the Kremlin, but rather a massive stone door weighing something like 40 tons behind which the body of Ataturk is resting. A rotating camera view-finder at my waist continuously moved around the room and zoomed in-and-out at the flat memorial inside the stone structure. I waited and watched until it became too repetitive. I was standing several dozen meters below the center of the Hittite Temple at the top of the hill, smothered in marble, peering into the eye of a camera lens. Ataturk was a narcissistic man with a conflated sense of self-concept. It makes sense that the eye of a camera is a kind of never-ending reflection of him. Not only is he ubiquitous throughout the country, but in the postmodern age he is on television every hour of the day. Perhaps, I thought, the Turkish government will broadcast the mausoleum on a special government television channel.

At this point I half-expected to find a hidden passage somewhere beneath a carpet which lead directly into the mausoleum. Yet the guards were standing near to me and I was alone. I tried to imagine what their thoughts were like, and this contributed to my heightened sense of adventure at the time. At any rate I pushed forward and discovered many fetishistic items of Ataturk’s, such as his (stuffed) dog standing in the living quarters, a life-size model of Ataturk sitting at his desk, and a small portion of his own library which gave me the impression Ataturk was a man who had mastered many things in his lifetime. For example, some of the books had English titles regarding military field training, weapons systems, education policy, legal policy and development. The general Pan-Turkic trend has been to depict Ataturk in mythic proportions, including his body size, which was quite smaller than the manikins would have us believe. This ideology can be attributed mostly to his immediate successors who wished to hold the spirit of revolutionism and Kemalist reform. But the War of Independence was not, as it seems, a creation of Ataturk but a national populist movement headed by a coalition of army officers, religious leaders, and intellectuals. Indeed, many more people should be given credit for the independence, and there was also some discussion among the group as to whether more credit should have been given to the German commander who initiated the military movement in Turkey before Ataturk more or less hi-jacked the movement from him.

The mausoleum experience was an artistic transposition of reality. The key symbols of Kemalistic art are undeniably militarism, masculinity, glory (horses, godlike poses) and the Turkish-Islamic synthesis. Sitting in my chair here in Freiburg, I feel as though it would be possible to write a thesis, or perhaps a psychobiography, of Ataturk as a kind of Oedipal father. Although this is an antiquated strategy of seduction, I have come to believe the Turks have a kind of antiquated political consciousness, and that this sort of thesis would be quite possible and very believable in a psychoanalytic style.

Monday, July 09, 2007

'Deep State' Elements in Turkey's Extra-Political Processes

Last week in Istanbul's Taksim Square--a liberal-minded district for shopping, nightclubbing and shisha smoking--I saw a group of 60 PKK members (the Kurdish Workers Party which is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Turkey) performing an independence demonstration. With a police presence larger than the demonstration itself, I was reminded of my own involvement in the Tacoma Port Protests in May this year. And last May Day protest in Istanbul, more than 900 people were battered and arrested by the paternalist Turkish police state at Taksim Square. Yet the police chiefs are members of the elite vanguard, who are allegedly against the nomination of AKP candidate Abdullah Gul as well. So they have something in common with the protesters. Why are they unnecessarily violent toward them? The EU Commissioners I spoke to later in Ankara said excessive police "torture" is a one of many reasons Turkey does not fulfill the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership. This year was not only the 30-year anniversary of a massacre in Taksim which killed 40 people (carried out by high-level anti-democratic elements within the Turkish military intelligence community), but also a large protest against Abdullah Gul sponsored by the professors and elite community. Of course, no one seems to mind that Gul is already the Deputy Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs and has been for seven years. So perhaps this was a "last straw" of sorts.

Nevertheless an elite force in Turkish military and academic circles, the "Deep State" as it is called, have been accused of deeply tragic blunders in the past years. Most recently for conspiring in the assassination of Hrant Dink, the Armenian news editor who spoke out against the genocide against the Armenians in 1919. Even the AKP Prime Minister Erdogan has admitted the existence of the "deep state", but he is certainly not the first. In 1974 the Prime Minister of the time, Bulent Ecevit, had complained about the existence of the deep state apparatus which he described as the "counter guerrilla" force.

But the deep state is not just the Turkish Armed Forces, the academia, the intelligence community, or the judiciary. The Zaman newspaper fingers the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terror unit (JITEM) as a habitat of deep state personnel. As if it were a single organization like the CIA or MOSSAD. But it really has no structure. It is all of these forces together, forming a cross-bureaucratic state apparatus that obtains full support from the military. According to Ecevit the deep state was a military establishment outside the TSK chain of command. Evren first heard of the deep state from Ecevit and as the top commander he wanted to abolish the establishment, but couldn't. The military vanguard is constitutionally protected. And whatever structures they have institutionalized, however corrupt, is without oversight. Another former president, Demirel, said in 2005 that the

"deep state is the state itself. It is the military. The military that established the state always fears the collapse of the state. The people sometimes misuse the rights provided. When it is given the right to stage of rally, it may go and break windows, confront the police. The need for the deep state is a result of the deficiency of governance of the country. The deep state is not active now. It is not active as long as the state is not brought to the verge of collapse. They are not a separate state, but when they intervene in the administration of the state, they become the deep state."

Yet the deep state is not simply a military element, as I pointed out. It has a very loose structure. Many believe a part of this deep statism was revealed in the notorious 1996 crash of a Mercedez--the Susurluk Incident. Ten years ago the question all Turks asked was, what do these four people have in common: an Istanbul police chief, the leader of the National Action Party's (MHP) violent youth organization, a mafia hit-woman, and a devout Kurd-nationalist and True Path Party (DYP) member of parliament? The case was further troubled by the discovery of silencer pistols, incriminating documents, thousands of US dollars, special diplomatic credentials, fake IDs, and and fake passports. The nation watched in horror as the corruption of politics unfolded from deeper and deeper within the state.

Deep State politics can be traced back to Ataturk's own reforms in the 1930s, where it was initially covered in light but accessible bureaucracy. Now it has burrowed its way to the center and built an un-transparent defense of its existence. One of the six pillars of Kemalism is in fact "statism", and the military is looked to by millions of Turks to prevent the corruption of the state by giving TSK a special status the politicians cannot revoke. There is no "deep democracy" in Turkey, all there is is a state capitalism.

The first step toward real reform of Turkey would first dissolve the military apparatus and to recognize the ethnic groups and break down any unnecessary paths to their independence. The EU Commission will not mention any meaningful reforms like this, however, and chances of Turkey joining the EU any time soon are extremely slim.

Istanbul and the Revolt of the Elites

Although the Ayasofia of Istanbul did not make the Seven Wonders of the World list this year (announced on Saturday), by any measure Istanbul is a world-class historical city. As first Byzantium and later Constantinople, it was capital of a Roman Empire that lasted longer in the east than in the west. It became the Sublime Porte, capital of the Ottoman Empire and seat of the Islamic caliphate. Sadly, Ayasofia (pictured left) is disfigured by internal scaffolding, but the immense scale of the basilica, built by Justinian between 532 and 537 AD, is staggering. It was turned into a mosque on the day that Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. It is fitting, given today’s arguments over his secular legacy, that it was Ataturk who turned it into a museum in 1935.

Coming into the city from Ataturk airport, I passed through the thick walls of Constantine (which kept Ottoman besiegers at bay until 1453) before emerging into a forest of minarets perched spectacularly above a the Bosporus and the strategic Golden Horne. With a population of 11 million inside the city limits and 15 million during the workday, Istanbul is the largest city I have ever stepped foot in. Yet people are not loath to speak to anyone, especially to foreigners, whom they have the pride of sharing their land with.

I encountered no anti-Americanism in Istanbul, although it has been increasing since the "hooding incident" of 2004 where US forces ambushed Turk forces and hooded them on July 4th. In a claustrophobic jewelry shop in the conservative Fatih neighborhood I spoke to a Turk who told me that America has "all the money", but Turks will once again "become the world's super-power." I asked him who he'd vote for in the July 22nd elections and he said AKP, as if it were blasphemous to suggest anything else. Ataturk's own party, the secularist CHP, is grossly unpopular these days. The center-right voters prefer the Islamist AK Party, and the fundamentalists prefer the MH Party.

Although European on the surface, Istanbul is Turko-nationalist to the core. I half-expected the worldly elite of Istanbul to deplore the recent heavy-handed military threats to the AK party and firmly back democracy before militarism. Though I knew that being elite in Turkey meant also being pro-military, I still expected that at least some I encountered would be in favor of democracy. The opinion of most of the journalists, former diplomats and bankers who can be seen at coffee houses in the city's Galata district is favorable toward the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), who are expected to intervene in the elections next week. The elites are overtly sympathetic to this "vanguard" of the Turkish constitution, and suspicious that the AK Party has a hidden Islamist agenda to turn their country into a new Iran. But in fact the AK Party has already been in power for seven years and most Turks are supportive of its reforms. If the elites revolt, and if the military does stage a coup, it will be just one of five military putches in the last 45 years--the last one being in 1997.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Anatomy of a Currency Crisis -- Turkey 2001

It was in fact the banking sector of the Turkish economy which was blamed for having led to hundreds of thousands of job losses and steep price increases in the 2001 currency crisis, triggered by September 11th. Who else if not the state could the Turk's finger? Since 2001--2002 macroeconomic indicators such as inflation have dropped from mainly as a result of monetary and structural reforms. For example, a former vice president of the World Bank (Kemal Dervis) was appointed as the economy minister, and the Turkish parliament approved a law which gave the Central Bank of Turkey, the bank which regulates the fractional reserves and discount rates, independence from political interference. A free central bank is such a basic need for a market economy. Turkey still works closely and compliantly with the IMF's Washington Consensus-builders, however. Bank reform was one of the measures which had been demanded by international lenders before they agree to give further financial support to the Turkish government, regardless of IMF and World Bankers.

A wave of mergers, acquisitions and IPOs has been noticeable since 2001's crisis. The number of banks fell dramatically from 81 in 1999 to 54 in 2002 through what Schumpeter calls “creative destruction”, mainly because of bank failures and domestic consolidation between minor players. Global bankers such as France's BNP Paribas bought the largest shareholder of the largest asset-holding bank in Turkey.

Foreigners, mostly Europeans, acquired more than two-thirds of the available equity but the public sector holding company, the General Directorate of Foundations, still owns 58%. The consensus among analysts is that the wave of mergers and acquisitions is now coming to an end. But foreign investors with organic-growth-based business plans still purchase minor banks for their licenses. The attention now is on the state-owned Halkbank, which is slowly privatizing its assets with IPOs. Halkbank is known for its broad client network of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

Banks based in Benelux countries, especially Holland, have bought several Turkish banks to form strong financial bridges. The Dutch Fortis Groups has acquired several banks entirely through tender calls. Finansbank is the largest foreign-controlled publicly listed bank in Turkey, owned by Greek bankers. It is clear in the bank's purchase agreements that the original owners value the control they retain. Power in the board of directors at Garanti will remain evenly split according to the agreement. Akbank and Citibank stipulated that Citigroup may only purchase further shares from Sabanci Holding, not directly from family members. This is a significant improvement, considering the studies of the GLOBE and Geert-Hofstede institutes which described inter-familial trust very unpromisingly in Turkey. Turkish society apparently is becoming more trusting, more engaging, and the institutes describe this as conducive behavior for market economies.

There were several reforms which made this creative process possible. During the Lira crisis, the state Central Bank fixed the exchange rate of its 35% overvalued lira. The Turkish government then independently decided to float the currency with international prices and introduced new banknotes to regain trust and address the capital flight and liquidity crisis caused by investors' choices. Many EU members argued that since Turkey is queuing to join the EU, it would be wrong to support it financially because this would send out a signal that the Union is prepared to bail out anybody running into difficulties ahead of joining.

After the 2001 crisis, Mr Dervis announced that an independent board of managers would be created to control three of Turkey's four main state banks. The financial burden on state banks was transferred directly to Turkey's government budget, to the high publicly-owned debt. In 2006 public debt was 67% of GDP. The now independent Central Bank of Turkey initiated several modern reforms such as the implementation of a full-fledged inflation targetingregime from the beginning of 2006. Every other Western country has been using this strategy since the 1980s, however. It was a basic and simple reform.

Why was so much of the blame for Turkey's political and economic crisis can be laid at the door of the country's banking sector? Turkey's banks have long been the economy's Achilles heel. Turkey's financial crisis in November 2000 was similarly sparked by problems with the banks. The large number of small banks with insolvent reserve ratios led to their collapse. Corruption in many banks is due to fraudulence and illegal practices against the banking regulatory agency. The arrest of bank executives had aided rumors that other banks were in trouble and re-ignited alarm over corruption in the sector.

After floating the currency 40% of the Istanbul Stock Exchange dropped and inter-bank interest rates rocket to as high as 2000% as foreign investors fled the country. Since then the currency leveled out; doubts over Turkey's ability to meet inflation and privatization targets—as part of a wholesale reform program supported by the International Monetary Fund—also resurfaced. The IMF eventually agreed to provide $7.5bn in new emergency loans. The IMF also brought forward $3bn in loans that were available to Turkey under a previous IMF deal.

Of course, the new loans came with IMF agreements: Turkey had to make a fresh commitment to reform its banking sector and to accelerate its privatization program. The currency peg during the fixed exchange period, which controlled the movements of the lira, also happened to be the centerpiece of the IMF-backed financial reform package of the time designed to combat inflation. Yet the IMF supported the Turkish government's unilateral decision to float the currency anyway. Horst Köhler, managing director of the IMF, who nonetheless supported the lira's devaluation, admitted to the BBC that "the change in the exchange rate regime requires a revision of the macroeconomic framework for the economic program".

In defense of banks, it appears to me that the heavy statist approach of the Turkish government in nearly every sector of its economy is to blame for the historical buildup to the currency crisis in 2001. If the state could be trusted in monetary controls, if banks were allowed to respond to prices and supply conditions freely, if state banks were not staffed by corrupt insiders, and if the old Lira was pegged to something truly fixed and fully reserved, perhaps September 11th would have had little impact on the Turkish economy.