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A sign of life in the Davos Dead Zone

If you missed the final moments of the passionate exchange at Davos’ World Economic Forum between Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, Israeli President Peres and a moderator with the cultural sensitivity of a United Airlines stewardess… well, this one is already all over YouTube.

After years of regarding the annual ritual of Davos as just so much nonsense, Thursday night I at last became a fan. In a world suffering the imperialism of lounge music, we witnessed an original jam session. In an age when every politician’s utterance is carefully coached, if not entirely scripted, we got stream of consciousness.

Struggling for a media analogy, the best I can come up with would be the Soviet Union’s Nikita Krushchev taking off his shoe and pounding it on the lecturn at the United Nations in 1960. Yes, we live in an era of “reality television.” But it is rare if ever that we see the political class starring in the policy-making equivalent of “Pam Girl on the Loose.”

So if you missed the final moments of the passionate exchange at Davos’ World Economic Forum between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Israeli President Shimon Peres and a moderator with the cultural sensitivity of a United Airlines stewardess… well, use your favorite bypass of Turkish Internet censors. This one is already all over YouTube.

Finally, something breathed a bit of life into the Davos Dead Zone. For years I have watched with pain this carnival in the Alps and its circus meister Klaus Schwab. I have never been quite certain which he called more to mind. Is this the reincarnation of showman P.T. Barnum of the 19th century baby elephant and fire eater extravaganza? Or is Schwab more like the tele-evangelist I once met, who described to me the creation of various silver, gold and platinum classes of the faithful whereby he financed his global TV ministry?

Like a coffee franchise, Davos Inc. has spun off so many subsidiaries in recent years it is hard to keep count. They range from the “mini-summit” like the one lacklusterly staged a few months back in Istanbul to the bigger events like the “Annual Meeting of the New Champions of Asia” held in China, to the “Inaugural Summit of the Global Agenda,” the Davos sub-brand just launched in Dubai.

Despite such humility-free sloganeering, it is all so very wearily predictable. And unfortunately, so too is the Eurail Set’s answer to the Jet Set, the so-called “counter-Davos” begun in 2001. The “World Social Forum” is essentially the same blend of pop psychology married to the promise of networking.

Except the simulcast WSF is sort of the pilot fish to Davos’s shark, existing in a kind of left-wing symbiosis entirely derived from and dependent on the older host organism. If you watched a bit of it from this year’s staging ground in Belem, Brazil, you will note that it too is shy on original thought. Just swap the Hermes bags for tie-dyed T-shirts and switch praise of “globalization” with calls for “alter-globalization” and you pretty much have the same make-new-friends drill.

But just as the world was starting its annual yawn, then wham! Prime Minister Erdoğan comes along to produce real drama instead of its pale and imitative derivatives.

To say this exchange will go down in the Davos record books is to put it too lightly. The dizzying echoes of of Peres’ pedantry, Erdoğan’s venom and poor David Ignatius’ inadvertent, mid-tirade pawing of the PM’s shoulder will all be the subject of socio-politico-cultural studies for years.

Peres should have known better than to hector a proud Turk like a boarding school headmaster. Ignatius, an old hand in the Middle East, should have known better than to get physical with a protocol-sensitive jock. If anyone could get a deal on Swiss stopwatches for his moderators it should be Schwab. And Erdoğan should have taken three deep breaths, or stopped off in a spa town for a yoga lesson or two before reaching the summit. But all this is now behind us. The endless analysis has already begun and will stretch out endlessly in front of us.

I am just happy that Davos suddenly became real, vibrant and alive for the first time. Our flagship and parent newspaper Hürriyet ran an all-caps banner headline yesterday, “SPIRIT OF DAVOS DEAD.” Premature I would say. Rather, I think the spirit of the place has just begun. I can’t wait for next year.

(David Judson is editor-in-chief of the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.)

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