As this is being written late on a Monday evening, Turkish riot police are once again attacking the protesters occupying Istanbul’s Taksim Square with tear gas and batons wielded by jack-booted cops. This news is brought to me online by way of Al-Jazeera and BBC News, but a quick scan of cable television news channels reveals little or no coverage.
This lack of interest by the U.S. press has been the norm even as massive numbers have taken to the streets in Istanbul and elsewhere across Turkey to protest the increasingly authoritarian behavior of their democratically-elected prime minister. Given the U.S. media’s interest in equally momentous protests in the rest of the Middle East, in places like Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iran, this is quite odd. Why are the Turkish protests receiving so little interest here in the United States?
Good news for Erdogan
First, as a democratic country where the widely protested government was freely and fairly elected, the idea that such a government could be unpopular enough to call hundreds of thousands of citizens to the streets in defense of a park seems outlandish.
True, New York had the Occupy Wall Street protests, but they pale in scale and scope to what is going on right now in Turkey. Given the overwhelming narrative in the U.S. media that capitalism is good and commercial development even better, the message from the Taksim demonstrations — that huge numbers are opposed to sacrificing greenery and cultural heritage for sake of another shopping mall — is disquieting.
Second and despite evidence to the contrary, the citizenry of U.S. allies are not supposed to rise up in massive crowds to demonstrate their unhappiness with their existing regime. Doing so casts our own friendship with that government in a harsh light, and even hints that Washington’s priorities may be misplaced. This is especially the case when America’s strategic interests trump human rights, such as in Egypt – where Washington nonchalantly supported the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak for decades – or Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and to a brutal crackdown by a Sunni monarchy on its Shiite-majority population.
Third, Middle Eastern countries are deemed important to U.S. television audiences depending upon two things – how much oil they have, and their relationship with Tel Aviv. If a country has little oil, as is the case with Turkey, or poses no threat to Israel, then the country is more or less deemed unimportant by the arbiters of U.S. television news coverage.
Tellingly, the last time Turkey got much press in the U.S. was over the Israeli raid on the Turkish ship MV Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. In that incident the framing of the story in the U.S. more or less cast Turkey, not Israel, as the aggressor.
So, to sum up, if your country is an undemocratic, oil-rich threat to Israel, protests in your country will be widely covered by the U.S. press. If your country is democratic and happily accepting the dictates of global capitalism, has no oil, and isn’t much of a threat to Israel at all, then good luck competing against NASCAR updates and the latest episode of American Idol.
To be sure, the U.S. press will cover you, but only in the elite publications meant for a more sophisticated U.S. audience. The general population won’t even know your country exists – let alone has huge, ongoing protests – until your ambassador appears on The Daily Show.
Stripping the veneer of consensus
This is a sad thing, because protests like those in Istanbul provide an important counterweight to the message that all is well in the US-led capitalist world order. Indeed, they suggest that not only are things not well, but that people can actually do things about it – like take to the streets.
For those in power like Mr. Erdogan, mass protests that fill the streets from end to end with angry, shouting people is a frightening prospect. They directly challenge government legitimacy by showcasing public dissatisfaction loudly and publicly. If they are met with force, then leaders come across as little more than bullies willing to inflict pain in order to get their way.
While this is bad enough, even direr than the PR disaster such large protests constitute is the demonstrative effect they inspire in others. The Arab Spring, for instance, was kicked off by news reports of one man in Tunisia setting himself alight over his unfair treatment by the country’s police-enforced bureaucracy. Others took up his cause and overnight the sight of tens of thousands of people braving billy clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets was replicated in capital cities throughout the region. Mass protests can in an instant shatter the façade of stability that hides deep, underlying fissures in a society.
This power to shatter the sometimes-shallow consensus under which every society operates is thus the true power of mass demonstrations combined with mass media. It also explains why both the U.S. press and Turkey’s domestic broadcasters have largely ignored the protests.
Acknowledging dissent — especially in the form of mass protests — by airing it on TV vividly demonstrates to citizens they are not alone in their discontent, while images of police brutality show the true face of a government that most have, at least tacitly, bought into and accepted. Since most people do not consider themselves violent thugs, being associated with a regime can be quite uncomfortable.
Which is why mass protests taking place in U.S.-allied countries and “good,” neoliberal-capitalist democracies aren’t likely to make the news here in America – doing so would highlight the huge differences between what our leaders say about the world, and how the world actually is.
Forced to look in the mirror
For an imperial people who believe firmly in the goodness of American power and who don’t like having their empire — nor its hypocrisies — pointed out to them, such protests are unwelcome reminders that not everyone is happy with the status quo, and that not everyone thinks American leadership brings peace and stability to the world.
Much better for those at home not to see or hear about the protests: Who are they going to believe – America’s leaders or their lying eyes? Cognitive dissonance hurts – a lot – so best not think too much about it. Besides, companies have products to sell, networks have commercials to run, and don’t you really want to know more about sports and celebrity gossip, anyway?
The powers that be certainly hope so.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.
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