Friday, November 28, 2008

Around that track

Long ago, I wrote that people draw their strengths from others' weaknesses. A position of power is only possible if one has subordinates. And usually, these little luxuries are gained after years of hard work. That's why people have little incentives to help newcomers or outsiders. People want to enjoy some exclusivity, because they paid the price for it.

Over the past couple of days, I have been reading about an argument I completely overlooked before. Up to now, I dismissed the argument that Turkey and the European Union are incompatible, because they belong to different value systems. I thought this was fatalistic, I thought it robbed Turkey (and other countries who are admittedly behind) the chance to reform their ways. I thought countries should be allowed to climb the world's civilization ladder if they are willing to do so. It was the only way the EU would have a meaning and future greater than itself, the only way forward. That's why arguments emphasizing the irreconcilable differences in identity and values seemed lazy to me (just like it is lazy for Turkish nationalists to argue that we are too different.) I rallied against the fact that Turkish accession would have to be approved in popular referenda even if it met all accession criteria. Europeans raised hurdles like the Cyprus issue just to discourage Turkey from pursuing membership. They weren't honest, they didn't act in good faith.

After a couple of days' worth of reading, now I see how identities and values matter for European people (like everyone else), and how they may feel like the enlargement process is imposing upon them something they shouldn't have to endure.

Researchers group people's and countries' "attitudes" towards the enlargement issue in three categories. The first one is a rational cost-benefit analysis, where people weigh potential socio-economic and security benefits against potential costs. The second one is identity considerations, where people look at whether Turkey's values are compatible with European values. The third one is "post-nationalism," which permits accession as long as Turkey internalizes the common values the EU is built upon, democracy and human rights being the foremost. In other words, Turkey should be allowed in if it fulfills all the accession criteria.

Member states' attitude towards enlargement is largely determined by the kind of future they envision for the EU, and we go back to the "enlargement" versus "deepening" dichotomy. Countries like the UK and Sweden argue for a loose union. They believe there is no reason to push for commitment where it is too costly. The EU is already quite large, and it unavoidably involves members with different foreign policy and economic interests. They would follow a rational, post-national attitude. Even if irreconcilable differences between value systems exist, they would claim that this is beside the point as long as each member state respects the common values of democracy and human rights.

The right wing in countries like France, Germany and Austria, on the other hand, believes that the EU can be a powerful player only as a stronger political union, and homogeneity is required for it to become one. Here are some voices from this camp, taken from Hakan Yilmaz's article Turkish identity on the road to the EU: basic elements of French and German oppositional discourses (Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, December 2007).

"A political union needs something like a we-feeling. This we-feeling is something more than a commitment to democracy and human rights. It has to do with a centuries-old shared history: Greek antiquity, Roman law, the conflict between the Pope and the German Kaiser in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, all these that give Europe its specific character." Friedbert Pflüger, CDU

"Christianity is understood not so much as a belief system or a theology but as a civilizational idea, political culture and lifestyle. As such, for example, it is believed that the cultural roots of some fundamental secular European values, such as the separation of spiritual and worldly affairs, the separation between the public and the private spheres, the idea of natural rights protecting the individual against the state, and, following Max Weber, the culture of capitalism, all have their roots in Europe's Christian heritage." Hakan Yilmaz, page 298.

"In principle, a non-Western and non-Christian country like Turkey can adopt Western values, without sharing Christianity and Western history. However, this westernization will take a very long time and it will not be completed in ten to fifteen years. A long time is necessary." Professor Heinrich August Winkler, Humboldt University

"By underestimating the concrete difficulties our societies have to properly integrate Muslims already living in our communities, [if we admit Turkey into the EU] we could in the end be increasing the risk of a 'clash of civilizations' within Europe, instead of avoiding it." Sylvie Goulard.

There is yet another question. Would Turkey's cultural and religious heritage, its history prevent it from internalizing democratic values in the timeframe envisioned for possible accession (10-15 years), tying the hands of even post-nationalist supporters of accession?

"Even the long-standing secular tradition of Muslim Turkey does not make it any more 'integrateable' to Europe, because it is generally believed that Turkish secularism is fake, it is artificial, it has been assimilated by a small Westernized elite, it has not submerged into the 'cultural genes' of the larger Turkish society, and it has been protected only by the force of arms." Hakan Yilmaz

I have to accept that these views are correct in this moment in history. However, they reflect a static view of history, they reflect conservatism. What I call for is not tolerance for values and practices that cannot be tolerated. What I call for is faith in that values and practices that should be reformed can be reformed - in due course. Because idealism is necessary to work for something better. Especially if you don't happen to be a European citizen.

Monday, November 24, 2008


You know, when you see something beautiful on the side of the road, when you discover something exciting, you want to poke the person next to you and make them see. Make them see. I knew more when I was sixteen. I forgot, I have to think through all the questions again. Each and every one of them. It's painful, I like knowing and giving answers. Making them see - that I know. Because you couldn't tell looking at me.

Once again I know. But this time I won't tell.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

something I wrote in April 2006 to enter the Sander Thoenes prize of the Financial Times. I'm omitting last names because my sources didn't give me permission to be quoted here.


Women in the Middle East

“After getting married, Galip discovered that there was a secret, mysterious and slippery territory in the life of the anonymous person that the statistics called a ‘housewife.’ This forbidden territory was the common topic and target of all the soap and detergent commercials, photo romances, the latest news translated from foreign magazines, radio shows and colorful newspaper sections, but it was also way beyond them and much more secretive.

During their three-year marriage, Rüya was the one who seemed discontent with having missed the joy and fun of an undefined life in an undefined place, not Galip,” wrote Turkish author Orhan Pamuk in his Black Book.

Middle Eastern women are equally well educated with their counterparts in other developing regions of the world, according to a recent World Bank report[1]. Given their education and productivity levels, one would expect that more of them would work. Then why do they defy expectations, what holds them back?

Understanding incentives might be key to understanding the phenomenon. When making the decision to enter the labor market, a Middle Eastern woman has to take more into consideration than her counterparts in other parts of the world.

“Decision to go to work will be driven by opportunity costs,” the professor tells to his Topics in the Economic Development of the Middle East[2] class at Georgetown University. “Maybe a woman has a higher reservation wage, one that is driven not only by her education, but also by [the] values of [the society.]”

The story is actually quite simple: Speaking in strictly economic terms, a woman will decide to look for a job, if her expected gains exceed her expected costs. Her gains are determined by her wage and the likelihood of her finding a job. She cannot expect tax and employment benefits, because these are limited to the “heads of the household,” who are usually men.

Of course, we can add the fulfillment of a fruitful career and social interactions into the equation, but Middle Eastern women might value these intangibles differently.

“In the US, there’s an expectation that everybody should live up to his potential,” says Kristen. “What the society expects of you makes a big difference.”

What the Middle Eastern societies expect of women is to fulfill their role in the patriarchal society as “home-makers” and “caregivers,” while men are the sole breadwinners. The media promotes these traditional roles.

“The husband’s responsibility to provide for the family confers rights and authority on him -reinforced through a host of laws, policies, and institutions- that he retains even if he does not or cannot provide fully for his family,” the World Bank report reads, “As a result, women become financially, legally, and socially dependent on men.”

Again, Middle Eastern women may view the patriarchal contract differently than westerners do. Melissa gives the example of a young woman she met when she was in Tunis. This woman saw the patriarchal contract as “team work, not dependency. It’s not dominance [of men over women], it’s support.”

Melissa’s friend thought the society allowed women to retain control over their families. “She’s 22 years old,” she says, describing her friend, “she’s working to get a PhD, she wants to get married and have children and be taken care of.”

In many countries in the region, a woman needs her husband’s permission to work and travel. When a woman decides to enter the labor force despite her husband’s disapproval, she runs the risk of divorce, losing her husband’s financial support and the custody of her children. Interaction of sexes in the workplace has also been a consideration for both women and their husbands.

The professor points out that the patriarchal family has been the most important social safety net for individuals who do not earn their own incomes. He says states can alter the incentive structure only by offering pensions, family assistance, and welfare nets to eliminate women’s vulnerability and dependence on men.

Not only does the patriarchal structure influence the labor supply, but it also shrinks the labor demand, by making women less desirable for the private sector. The oil boom of the 1970s and the subsequent bust in the 80s only served to strengthen this effect: During the boom, the real wages were high enough that women did not need to work. During the bust, women wanted to work, but there were not enough jobs for them, as the shrinking work opportunities were offered to men.

Due to affirmative action policies and generous maternity benefits, women are widely employed in the public sector. As the share of public sector employment shrinks in the economy, private sector will have to absorb more of the female labor supply.

“Education rates are on the rise but there are not enough job opportunities available to women,” says Shirin. The professor agrees, and asks: “Why should women jump into a labor market where unemployment rates are so high?”

Indeed, so many women in the region choose not to work, and instead, they enter into the patriarchal contract. In her recent study[3], Jennifer C. Olmsted examines what the contract means for women at later stages in life: “[A]ging parents generally live in extended family households, with one or more of their sons. Most women are economically supported first by their fathers, then by their husbands, and eventually by their sons.” In the lack of other safety nets, women who remain unmarried or childless become extremely vulnerable.

Once they are in the patriarchic system, women have incentives to maintain it, because they gain power over younger members of the family as they age. “They may have more powerful voices than younger men and women,” Olmsted writes. According to her study, Palestinian women advise their sons to marry less-educated girls, so they can exert more influence on their daughter-in-laws.

Because parents expect that their sons will be taking care of them once they get old, and their daughters will marry out, they have every incentive to invest in their sons’ education, and not in their daughters’. This further reduces women’s future chances of entering the labor market, and the patriarchic contract becomes self-reinforcing.

The incentive structure is built upon and strongly supported by a system of values. In these circumstances, women voluntarily choose not to work. There needs to be an exogenous factor that will open a crack in this loop by creating safety nets, and changing the laws and regulations that hold women back.

“Change will need to be led from the top and supported by the grassroots,” the World Bank report reads. “The two main agents for these changes will be women’s advocacy and the state.”

According to the World Bank report, low female participation in the work force holds back Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries’ economic performance. If female participation rates had been at predicted levels, the report goes, per capita GDP growth rates might have been 0.7 percent higher during the 1990s.

It seems improbable that large numbers of women will become more active in the public sphere on their own any time soon, largely due to the same factors explained above. But the state has an interest in providing options to women. If not for anything else, then for the sake of the whole region’s economic well being.

[1] Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa: Women and the Public Sphere, 34963, 2006.

[2] All quotes taken from the class meeting on April 4, 2006, unless otherwise indicated.
[3] Gender, Aging, and the Evolving Arab Patriarchal Contract, Jennifer C. Olmsted, 2005.
1. You came to me this morning
And you handled me like meat.
You´d have to live alone to know
How good that feels, how sweet.
My mirror twin, my next of kin,
I´d know you in my sleep.
And who but you would take me in
A thousand kisses deep?

2. I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat.
I´m just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet,
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second-hand physique -
With all he is, and all he was
A thousand kisses deep.

3. All soaked in sex, and pressed against
The limits of the sea:
I saw there were no oceans left
For scavengers like me.
We made it to the forward deck
I blessed our remnant fleet -
And then consented to be wrecked
A thousand kisses deep.

4. I know you had to lie to me,
I know you had to cheat.
But the Means no longer guarantee
The Virtue in Deceit.
That truth is bent, that beauty spent,
That style is obsolete -
Ever since the Holy Spirit went
A thousand kisses deep.

5. (So what about this Inner Light
That´s boundless and unique?
I´m slouching through another night
A thousand kisses deep.)

6. I´m turning tricks;
I´m getting fixed,
I´m back on Boogie Street.
I tried to quit the business -
Hey, I´m lazy and I´m weak.
But sometimes when the night is slow,
The wretched and the meek,
We gather up our hearts and go
A thousand kisses deep.

7. (And fragrant is the thought of you,
The file on you complete -
Except what we forgot to do
A thousand kisses deep.)

8. The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win a while, and then it´s done -
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
You live your life as if it´s real
A thousand kisses deep.

9. (I jammed with Diz and Dante -
I did not have their sweep -
But once or twice, they let me play
A thousand kisses deep.)

10. And I´m still working with the wine,
Still dancing cheek to cheek.
The band is playing "Auld Lang Syne" -
The heart will not retreat.
And maybe I had miles to drive,
And promises to keep -
You ditch it all to stay alive
A thousand kisses deep.

11. And now you are the Angel Death
And now the Paraclete;
And now you are the Savior's Breath
And now the Belsen heap.
No turning from the threat of love,
No transcendental leap -
As witnessed here in time and blood
A thousand kisses deep.

September 21, 1998

Leonard Cohen
Continued from Cynicism and Naivete. And again - with gratitude to this post.

The break of innocence

This concert ticket, the theme of the sitcom that is my life for the past month, exploded in my hands. But it was all worth it. It was so beautiful. So beautiful. Beautifully written, beautifully arranged, beautifully played and beautifully sung. He actually sang Famous Blue Raincoat, and when he sang "and yes - thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes - I thought it was there for good - so I never tried" the whole audience sang with him. It was something that rang true, something sincere, to all those people. All his poems, if you open yourself and listen carefully, are beautiful.

When did "coolness" become cool? It grew out of the humanity's disillusionment and sorrow? After centuries of disappointment we finally built up our immune system and found the power in ourselves to not care? To forget? To hurt those who are naive and innocent, who haven't reached this wisdom yet? They have to learn too, right? This is the real world.

Let me tell you something. I will continue giving people the benefit of the doubt not because I don't know better, but because I choose to. They can feel free to prove me wrong or actually live up to their promise.

If you shield yourself so much from pain and disillusionment, you will end up missing out. You have to leave a crack open. So everything good and bad can seep in.

Monday, November 10, 2008

a little happiness

When nothing matters now and you're not sure if it ever did
When life is grey or black or whatever color it is
When the sound of his voice screaming in your ears
Melts with the television the noise disappears

You're letting him back in
To break you once again
You're crawling in your skin
You're forgiving him
You hold it in

Her mascara draws his picture on her face
And all these pictures that he's framed take up his space
These awkward elevator moments of happiness
Just keep her open to the cycles of viciousness

Letting him back in
To break you once again
You're crawling in your skin
You're forgiving him
You hold it in

Letting him back in
To break you once again
You're crawling in your skin
You're forgiving him
You hold it in
Holding on

For a little happiness
Holding on
For a little happiness

(Aimee Allen)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

a theory about why values matter

Yesterday I met up with some friends to discuss things that we are all interested in. One of our friends talked about different value systems, and said that the thing that ties most people to a value system (and not another) is not rational choice, but habit and emotion. He said societies should have serious debates about "morality", what is right and what is wrong. I decided to think through this idea and its implications.

First of all, why is there a need to have a public discussion about moral issues? Because value systems do not stay contained within one individual's life or one clearly-defined group. The value system of a policy maker will bear on his policy choices and affect all groups in the society.

Secondly, what is a "value system"? My definiton of a value is "the best way of doing something or solving a problem" for an individual, and a value system is a network of (ideally) mutually consistent and enforcing values. At the core of all these values is one or more assumptions. The validity of these assumptions is often not tested (or by nature cannot be tested). However, they provide answers to big fundamental questions. The system, then, gives answers to all the smaller questions based on the big answer at the core.

I will give an example from my own value system first. Let's say the question is, "should I drink wine?" My core assumption is that my actions should not harm myself or anyone, because that's bad, useless and troublesome. Then the answer is a simple "yes, but in moderation!" Let's take a devout Muslim. When faced with this question, he will go back to his core assumption: That God is the creator of universe and Hz. Muhammed is His prophet, and the best way to live life is to follow the rules prescribed by the Kur'an. Drinking wine is a sin according to the Kur'an. Moreover, if this person has never seen their family or friends drink wine, he will view a sudden change of habit as betrayal to his heritage. If he breaks one rule, would he lose his anchor, would his life lose its consistence, coherence and meaning?

Now let's see how this person's value system would affect his policy making. He sees people drinking wine in restaurants and bars, and they seem a little too happy and annoying. They might go out and drive and commit indecencies. Even if he realizes that wine drinkers do not harm him directly, he might simply take upon himself to spread the good in the society. Then our policymaker would adopt policies that limit wine drinking.

This theory can be applied to other social issues such as religious rights, abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage and women's rights. More significantly, policymakers may impose their value systems on the youth through the education curriculum and the media. Debates over the teaching of "intelligent design" versus "evolutionary theory" in the US is a good example.

But the remit of value systems is not limited to social issues, and assumptions are not always religious (although they demonstrate "religious" qualities). Economic policy is influenced by its own value systems. For example, neoliberalism was the most popular value system until the most recent crisis. Its core assumption, that market forces will allocate resources more efficiently, and regulation should be minimal, was considered almost as a law of nature by its proponents. The latest crisis demonstrated that this assumption was not tested in all circumstances. Communism was its own value system, and it didn't stand the test of time.

Another example can be national security and freedoms. Civil servants in Turkey, for example, typically belong to one value system. The core assumption of this system is that "the unity of the Turkish territory and nation should be protected against divisive ethnic and religious forces at all cost". Now, the validity and effectiveness of this assumption is open to question, but because of it, national security takes precedence over individual freedoms.

Having blind faith in the truth of a value system may be comfortable, but what if your assumptions are wrong? What if there are better options out there? What if evolution makes more sense than intelligent design (or visa versa)? Wouldn't we be closing ourselves to other possibilities, turning a blind eye on lessons learned from experience and research, limiting our potential for growth?

What matters is what you learn after you know it all.

In some areas, a society of free-thinking individuals would converge to value systems whose truth stands the test of time. In other instances, it may decide that some issues are personal, and the society should have no bearing on an individual's choice. But we should be open to listening to each other and changing our minds, however difficult and disconcerting it is. This is the only way forward.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Kurdish issue

I grew up with news of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) attacks in the South East and East Turkey. Soldiers, teachers, doctors (most of them sent to the South East from other parts of the country) would be killed. I wrote a while ago that as more people die for a cause, the more difficult it is to find a solution acceptable to both sides. (If it's not acceptable to both sides, it is not a solution anyway.) I have never travelled to those regions. I don't see how I can claim that they are part of my country when I'm not able to travel there out of fear.

Now, our military could keep on destroying PKK cells and kill terrorists and carry on with their air raids and even carry out another cross-border operation into northern Iraq. Our judges could start investigations against pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) deputies as much as they want. The Constitutional Court can shut down the party. Turks all over the world can start nationalist groups in the Facebook. With all their capabilities, they could not eliminate the PKK or the DTP in the past twenty-four years. You might say "it's foreign countries helping PKK and DTP!" It's not the Dutch or the Syrians fighting on behalf of PKK. They are recruiting Kurdish youth, and the local population obviously sympathizes with the PKK and DTP.

But their support is not blind. Back in 2005, Erdogan was hailed during a visit to Diyarbakir as the first Turkish prime minister to recognize the “Kurdish issue” and acknowledge the responsibility of the state in the problem. Although the reform momentum stalled considerably after the negotiations with the EU started in October 2005, the AKP took some steps to relax bans on Kurdish education and broadcasting. The party won many votes at the expense of the DTP in the general elections in July 2007, branding itself as the only party capable of reaching out to Kurdish communities.

However, support among the Kurds for the party started to wane as the government gave the military free rein in its operations into northern Iraq. Although the government unveiled a $ 18-billion investment programme in May to revive the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which will involve the building of new dams, expansion of irrigation networks and loans for entrepreneurs, the local populace seems far from impressed.

Moreover, the AKP, which narrowly escaped closure by the Constitutional Court in July, has remained silent about the closure case facing the DTP. The DTP, meanwhile, has adopted a harsher rhetoric as it views its closure imminent, and tries to secure support for its successor party in its last remaining strongholds in the region, such as Diyarbakir, Batman and Tunceli in the local elections in March. The protests they organized during Erdogan's 21 October visit to Diyarbakir drew large crowds, many of them children, and many shop-owners closed their shops either in support of the cause or in fear of violence. Support for the PKK and the DTP has never been so visible since the 1990s.

The AKP seems to lack a genuine interest in improving the democratic rights of the Kurds, and merely follows a pragmatic approach: Trying to secure the support of the Kurdish communities while avoiding discontent among Turkish nationalists. By not seeking a genuine solution in good faith, it is actually playing into the hands of the PKK and DTP, who derive their power from the continuation of the conflict. By not talking to them, we are speaking their language.