Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Real News

Reading Google News, I am struck by the degree to which dramatic stories crowd out arguably more important material. The top of the page is dominated by the current U.S. debt limit crisis. It is an entertaining example of the game of Chicken as played by politicians but of limited importance otherwise, since both sides are focused not on how to deal with the long term debt problem but on the terms on which they will agree to postpone dealing with it. 

Meanwhile there are at least two other stories getting considerably less play but arguably of more real importance.

Modern Turkey is the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, one of the more successful polities of the past thousand years or so. It was also, arguably, the first Muslim state to succeed in fitting itself into the modern world, thanks to the system established by Kemal Ataturk after World War I. The central feature of that system was secular democracy guaranteed by the threat of a military coup against any attempt to transform Turkey back into some version of a religious state, a guarantee that has been gradually eroded by the increasing political strength of Islamicist parties. 

Recent charges by the government that a considerable number of officers are involved in a conspiracy can be interpreted either as a defense against a real threat or as a preemptive counter coup by the government against its own military. They have now led to the resignation of the four top officers of the Turkish military. 

That could mean that Turkey has become a real democracy with no need for a synthetic military backbone. It could  mean that Ataturk's experiment is finally collapsing, that in not very long the count of successful Islamic secular states will drop from one to zero. Either way, the outcome is likely to be more important for the rest of the world than whether the U.S. government does or does not find it necessary to pay its employees with IOU's for a week or two, or auction some spectrum, or sell some land, or play short term accounting games, or in any of a variety of other ways buy time while politicians haggle.

On the other side of the world, something else is happening that could be even more important. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the world with two polities still committed, at least in theory, to communism, while Hugo Chavez' rise to power looked very much like the gradual creation of a third.

That experiment may now have been recognized as a failure by its chief supporters. The latest news from Venezuela shows Chavez backing off from socialist rhetoric, saying good things about small business and the middle class, claiming to have an improved vision for his country—possibly inspired by conversations with one or both of the Castros during his cancer treatment in Cuba. It is possible—not perhaps likely, but possible—that the news of how to make a country richer has finally gotten through to the last holdouts.

Or at least, the last but one.


9 Comments:

At 10:40 PM, July 30, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never underestimate stupidity. US is in serious danger. Just because you are sure neither of the parties is willing to pay the cost of the disaster, do not assume it won't happen. For starters, both of them believe its the other guys that will get blamed.

 
At 1:21 AM, July 31, 2011, Blogger Jonathan said...

Yes, if you want news about important matters, you have to look carefully.

Even more carefully if you want news about matters important to the world as a whole, rather than just to your own country.

The USA is an important country, but some of its concerns seem somewhat less important when viewed from abroad.

 
At 7:00 AM, July 31, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

News is just cheaply produced entertainment. It's even more painfully stupid when you look back at old news and ask how much was relevant to anyone (almost none).

 
At 12:24 PM, July 31, 2011, Blogger Æternitatis said...

I agree with Prof. Friedman on Turkey and am more inclined to take the dimmer of the two views he sets forth.

However, there is at least one other candidate for a successful, or at least functioning, majority Muslim democracy: Malaysia. For 2010, its principal economic stats are per capita GDP $14,200, real growth 7.2%. Cf. Turkey ($12,300, 8.2%).

 
At 1:20 AM, August 01, 2011, Blogger TheVidra said...

I would argue that some Muslim states are embracing modernity, without going the secular democracy route, like Turkey has been trying since the end of the Ottoman Empire. An example is the United Arab Emirates, which is neither secular (it pays lip service to religious dogmas, while tending to turn a blind eye to "sinning" by expats in most cases) nor democratic (the legislative body is not really legislative, it just consults the ruling hereditary family, and citizens with rights make up under 20% of the population). Yet it is a very successful and modern society in many ways, in terms of infrastructure, technology, literacy, economic freedom, and so on. Returning to the news on Turkey, having recently been there I can say that Ataturk is as much a revered symbol of their society, as the religion, if not more. Portraits of him abound everywhere, and people tend to take criticism of the religion much better than criticism of Ataturk or his ideals of a modern Turkish state. So there is probably too strong a popular sentiment still in favor of the secular state. (Then again, I was talking to mostly educated Turks in Istanbul). Having known Turks for many years, I did notice a shift from a fairly pro-Israel stance (ten years ago) to an anti-Israel stance now, but that was probably more influenced by recent events - also sensationalized by the "news" conglomerates.

 
At 1:40 AM, August 01, 2011, Blogger TheVidra said...

I would argue that, while Cuba and Venezuela might be taking baby steps toward a freer market system, the vast majority of the world has perhaps moved into a more statist, less wealth-producing direction (at least philosophically) in the 20th century, especially after the breakup of the empires. Fascism, national socialism, and communism were just the most ambitious of the statist philosophies, and responsible for the most horrible atrocities, but the same collectivist ideals (toned down) fueled the common conception that a modern national government must provide many services that have nothing to do with governing (e.g. quality control, creation of jobs, etc.) and must micromanage society.

 
At 2:47 PM, August 02, 2011, Anonymous Nacm said...

I would not go so far as to say that it would mean Turkey has become a real democracy. After all, we are talking about a country where “journalists” are being arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the government:

http://www.freemedia.at/singleview/5376/

“It could mean that Ataturk's experiment is finally collapsing, that in not very long the count of successful Islamic secular states will drop from one to zero.”

Well, if that happens, does it prove that Islam and democracy are incompatible? Or an Islamic secular state is not possible? If so, then maybe we should bury our hopes for successful democratic states in the Middle East.

 
At 9:19 PM, August 02, 2011, Blogger Milhouse said...

The Questions No One is Asking About the Turkish Military

 
At 12:48 AM, August 21, 2011, Blogger John T. Kennedy said...

"It is an entertaining example of the game of Chicken as played by politicians but of limited importance otherwise, since both sides are focused not on how to deal with the long term debt problem but on the terms on which they will agree to postpone dealing with it."

Are there just two parties? I assume you mean democrats and republicans. But there is also the tea party which was actually pretty central in bringing this situation about. And at leas some of them intend to directly deal with the debt crisis immediately by declining to borrow more.

 

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