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Anti-Americanism in the Turkish press

March 27, 2012

The meeting earlier this week between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barack Obama at the nuclear summit in Seoul afforded the Turkish press with a golden opportunity to engage once more in the popular national pastime of gleeful America-bashing. From liberal to conservative, secular to religious, left to right, marginal to mainstream, knee-jerk anti-Americanism seems hard-wired into all strands of political opinion in Turkey. In such a fractious political landscape, it could well be one of the only things that all sides can agree on. When America becomes ‘just another power’ though, one wonders where all this energy will be diverted.

Almost all Turkish newspapers covered Obama and Erdoğan’s discussions with a cynical, sneering tone; sometimes subtle, often overt. One of my favourite examples came on the front page of the conservative-nationalist ‘Yeni Çağ’ (New Age), which dragged an entire story out of an innocent picture of Obama sitting behind Erdoğan, casually gesturing with his index finger off camera – apparently this was cast-iron proof of what the paper labelled his arrogant ‘finger diplomacy’. Elsewhere, for the heresy of a ‘broad agreement’ existing between himself and Obama over the issues of Syria and Iran, Erdoğan was routinely labelled ‘Batının postacısı’ (‘the West’s postman’). Like one of those old magic eyes, I suppose, if you blink hard enough at anything you can uncover whatever message you want.

John Gray, in his recent demolition of the high priest of blanket anti-Americanism, Noam Chomsky, makes a number of salient points, which are useful to consider when observing the steaming piles of anti-American bile in the Turkish media. Gray – himself no friend of neo-liberal economics or American-style financial capitalism these days – condemns Chomsky for his simplistic belief that the imperialist United States is somehow ‘quintessentially criminal and evil … virtually the sole obstacle to peace in the world’. According to Chomsky, Gray writes, ‘since there is no major conflict that America has not caused, or at any rate seriously aggravated, there is none that America cannot end’. There is no conflict that cannot be resolved if the U.S. did not simply withdraw its inevitably nefarious influence. For sheer America-centric naivety, it’s a perspective rivalling that of the neo-conservatives, with both sharing an unyielding belief in omnipotent, omnipresent U.S. power. For Chomsky, ‘as much as for the neo-cons, America is the centre of the world. [He] views global politics through the same Manichean lens: you are either for America or against it’.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (quite a popular figure in Turkey) slams the corrupt Zionist regime of the United States, he strikes many as a brave anti-Western resistance underdog, (particularly those ready to embrace any folly so long as it gives a bloody nose to the ‘arrogant imperialist powers’). It’s an irony, however, that no matter how much the Iranian regime protests its proud, uncompromising independence, it in fact condemns itself to absolute dependence on America, if only for a pole against which to instinctively define itself. The same can be said for much reflex criticism of U.S. policy.

Of course, global American power should always be robustly critiqued; but genuine, thoughtful criticism dissolves such shallow Manicheanism as displayed by Chomsky, Ahmedinejad, or ‘Yeni Çağ’. Indeed, it would be nice to think that the self-abasing anti-Americanism of so much of the Turkish press will eventually be eclipsed by a more nuanced and balanced criticism. There are, however, emotional imperatives at stake, and I’m not holding my breath.

It would probably be too late anyway. With the world becoming increasingly multi-polar, and U.S. power and influence apparently on the wane (a fashionable intellectual tendency to declare, but also one based on empirical, observable fact), the populist anti-Americanism so often demonstrated in the Turkish media may – perhaps sooner than we think – start to look rather quaint. Who knows, we may even one day look back on ‘finger diplomacy’ with a certain nostalgia!

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