Corruption as a fruit of insanity

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May 24, 2016 by AK

Leon Neyfakh writes about Dissernet, a network of Russian scientists and other activists busily exposing phony academic dissertations and degrees awarded to corrupt politicians. It’s good to see some familiar names on the side of light.

People doing serious academic work in any field have a good idea of the value of other people’s work in the field. Those fake degrees cannot fool anybody except the general non-academic public. Contrary to the subtitle, self-respecting doctors and lawyers neither want nor need them.

But how are they possible at all? After all, it’s not enough to manufacture a dissertation; one has to successfully defend it before some academic body. You only understand the utter absurdity of it all when you try to reconstruct the whole process.

Let’s say an aspiring United Russia operative wants a PhD or, better yet, a second-level doctorate. He hires a firm to deal with the matter. The firm hires people to write a dissertation. It’s usually in the social sciences, where even honestly produced dissertations tend to be prima facie BS. The hired guns, however, don’t feel like producing an imitation of an honestly idiotic thesis. They cut and paste – sometimes from another cut-and-paste job – until they have fulfiled all the formal requirements: the opus has an introduction and a conclusion, a brief thesis and a discussion of its consequences, a review of the literature and a section on empirical evidence, and so on.

The PhD broker finds two or three reviewers, called “opponents” in Russia, and gets them to sign positive evaluations of the “work.” Several “articles” may be published on behalf of the aspirant in “scientific” “journals.” Most importantly, the firm selects a suitable dissertation committee to rubber-stamp the work. Finally, in an apotheosis of the broker’s efforts, it stages a live defense before the committee and gets the academic regulator in Moscow to rubber-stamp the degree so awarded.

It’s a triumph of procedure over substance, akin to the recent political trials, following the procedure prescribed by the law but nevertheless meaningless and even absurd. When Naryshkin – the Duma speaker no less – said, “I trust the judgment of real scientists,” he made it clear that the “real” scientists were those who had the power to strip him of his doctorate – that is, members of the relevant (quasi-)governmental body.

To end this nightmare, eventually the state will have to pull out of the degrees business altogether. Leave it to the universities.


“Weapons-grade solipsism”

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May 22, 2016 by AK

My superficial impression of the Brexit controversy – which I tried to express in two words in a comment to this post – is of a high downside-to-upside ratio. Lots to lose and not much to gain.

Of course it is a matter of measuring, or weighting, the downside. For instance, the European arrest warrant can be seen as an outright erosion of the rights UK residents have always taken for granted. The expansion of Europol’s powers should also be a cause for concern. The big question is whether it is absolutely necessary to quit the EU to reverse these dangerous developments.

Ferdinand Mount writes in The London Review of Books of the temptation to see a certain insular disposition of mind – “Brexosis” – as underlying the pro-exit campaign. His worst suspicion of the Brexiters is that

they would be quite happy to put their supposedly beloved country through a period of prolonged turmoil and stagnation simply for the exhilaration of being on their own at last. No one since Greta Garbo has said ‘I want to be alone’ with such feeling. Or perhaps it’s not so much Garbo as the chant sung by the fans of Millwall FC that I should be thinking of: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care.’ At the time of writing, Millwall are lying fourth in Football League One. For the uninitiated, this is really the Third Division.

Millwall features in a great many movies, however.


Ukrainians tried in Grozny: the verdict

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May 21, 2016 by AK

A jury in Grozny, Chechnya, has found the two Ukrainians I have written about (1, 2, 3) guilty of fighting against Russian troops on the side of Chechen separatists in 1994-95. One of the men seems to have literally lost his mind from the inhumane treatment he endured in Russian captivity.

Regarding the jury’s independence, consider the following. A jury member is a resident of Chechnya. Her identity is known to the republic’s authorities. Said authorities have a history of resorting to, let’s say, extrajudicial means in dealing with their opponents or with dissidents. The rest is clear. The judge’s behavior was also predictable.

Why does Moscow need these trials? To have more leverage over Poroshenko’s government, possibly with a view to future prisoner exchanges. Also, to implicate more prominent Ukrainians in Chechen separatism through a bizarre legal process that Moscow appears to view as completely legit: a case that duly passed through all stages of the Russia legal system is valid to the Kremlin, no matter how absurd in essence.


Not much data on Eurovision 2016 voting

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May 18, 2016 by AK

At the Eurovision 2016 contest held last Sunday, the largest group of the Ukrainian callers who took part in the voting chose the Russian number. Azerbaijan and Poland came second and third in that Ukrainian poll. Russian callers awarded the most votes to Armenia; Ukraine came second and Austria, third.

It’s remarkable how much has already been written about this contest. However, to draw conclusions about voting patterns – which sociologists have been doing for no less than 20 years – one need more data than merely the rankings by nation. The number of voters from each participant nation broken down by the country they voted for would be a good starting point. I don’t think this data has been released.


Richard Rorty posthumously edited

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May 16, 2016 by AK

This is a perfect long article for its genre: a foreign policy expert, who also happens to be a professor of literature, on America’s domestic politics. Rabbit’s clever; the insightful parts are two apposite quotes from Max Weber and Richard Rorty. The problem with the latter is that Rorty got mangled in the process. Here’s what Mark Danner wrote in The New York Review of Books:

I recalled a remark that the philosopher Richard Rorty made back in 1997 about “the old industrialized democracies…heading into a Weimar-like period.” Citing evidence from “many writers on socioeconomic policy,” Rorty suggested that “members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack…”

The philosopher put it in a rather different way: he was summarizing and rephrasing someone else’s ideas while giving due credit to that person:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack…

I have no idea why Danner edited out Luttwak’s name. Perhaps he could not stand the thought of Rorty accepting the arguments of a thinker who would, twenty years later, poke fun at the establishment’s Trumpophobia.

Updated May 19. It probably started with David Brooks’ distorting Rorty big time in the opening of his 1998 longform attack on the philosopher (still living and active) in The Weekly Standard. According to Brooks, Rorty had predicted the US was about to become a dictatorship. The author of Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future failed to get as much as a passing mention. Brook’s trick was shortly exposed by Carlin Romano in Rortyism for Beginners.


Immigration status of the dead

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May 16, 2016 by AK

The Guardian sums up reports from the Khovanskoye cemetery in the South-West of Moscow, a most unlikely location, one would think, for violence of this sort:

At least three people were killed on Saturday when a mass brawl involving hundreds of people erupted at a Moscow cemetery…

At least 23 have been taken to hospital… four of them severely [injured]. Police have made more than 90 arrests…

The RIA news agency reported a cemetery official as saying that people from Russia’s North Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Dagestan had attacked migrants from ex-Soviet Uzbekistan and Tajikistan working there… TASS news agency said ethnic Chechens, Dagestanis, Uzbeks and Tajiks were among those detained.

I have heard a Moscow radio station report that police will be checking whether Moscow cemeteries are complying with immigration laws. Obviously, this means checking the immigration status of cemetery employees, but the wording – a case of unintentional black humor – makes one think of the deceased. It has also been reported that the fighting parties broke tombstones and used them as weapons.

The details are bizarre; the underlying reality is merely frightening.


The fatal trapezes

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May 15, 2016 by AK

In his grotesque sci-fi novelette The Fatal Eggs (1923), Mikhail Bulgakov wrote of

…the theater of the late Vsevolod Meyerhold, who died, as everybody knows, in 1927, during the staging of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, when a platform [lit. trapezes] with naked boyars collapsed over his head…

Meyerhold was executed as a “Japanese spy” on February 2, 1940, at 65. Bulgakov died on March 10, 1940, of hypertensive neurosclerosis, at 49. In 2005, I quoted that snippet from The Golden Eggs to poke fun at Dmitry Chernyakov’s opera productions. I am quoting it now because the “platforms” or “trapezes” were shorthand for a range of Meyerhold’s theatrical innovations, which, in their turn, influenced and shaped quite a few Soviet Russian movies of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Reviewing Owen Hatherley‘s short book on early Russian cinema, Pamela Hutchinson quotes from the introduction:

This book… is about people who imagined turning industrial labour into a circus act.

In the reviewer’s words, Hatherley

explores how Soviet cinema, and its wider culture, absorbed two American imports: the industrial theories of Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor, and the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

I have a few quibbles and one big issue with the review. It omits what I think was the single most important factor in the development of Russian movie-making: theater. Without Meyerhold’s “biomechanics,” for one, would the young Soviet filmmakers have absorbed Charlie Chaplin’s and Buster Keaton’s industrial trickery as creatively as they did?

Unlike Pamela Hutchinson’s review, Owen Hatherley’s book has a discussion of those connections, as is clear from this review by Tony Williams:

Chapter Two – “Red Clowns to the Rescue: Biomechanics in Film, Factory and Circus” – examines the theatrical development by Meyerhold of mechanized Taylorised acting that fused into what the director described as “Chaplinism” in 1936 derived from American comedy and slapstick acrobatics… Here Biomechanics became “a complete revaluation of Taylorism to the point where it attains the quality of circus clowning”… This technique opposed the Taylorism from which it borrowed, leading to a certain practice involving “difficulty and strangeness” that Meyerhold’s pupils Tretiakov and Eisenstein took up in various ways.

Unfortunately, Williams’ piece is interspersed with condemnations of the neo-liberal order (and Hatherley quotes Marcuse, predictably). He is obviously a first-rate expert on the subject of Soviet films but waving the red flag is unnecessary and does not help the reader understand the inner logic of the theater and the cinema. Meyerhold was a revolutionary by his own admission (e.g., to Mikhail Chekhov) but he was a man of the theater first and foremost – during a period when Russia was at the forefront of theatrical development. It started 15-20 years before the 1917 revolution and ended some 15-20 years after it.

We have witnessed a silver or gilded age of Russian theater in the past ten or fifteen years, too. Does it mean we’re going to live through a revolution soon? A cheap shot.


The morning after

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May 13, 2016 by AK

I know very few people who support the current Kremlin regime, so I cannot judge from personal experience what turns Russians into its fans and whether this attachment is deep and sincere.

I still believe there is an antidote for every poison, so there must be a way to break the spell that turns otherwise sensible people into political zombies. I just don’t know it (yet); whoever finds out might hit an enormous political jackpot. Otherwise, the options are limited to “hanging on in quiet desperation” and hoping that time is on the right side.

Which it probably is, after all: no ruler and no regime can last forever. But the rate at which it is damaging society seems to be going up. The question is what survives and what will be salvageable, and whether it will be worth trying to clean up the mess.


Not so clean hands

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May 12, 2016 by AK

In the previous post, I was talking about the “clean hands” operation launched by Milan prosecutors in 1992, which destroyed the old political order and unexpectedly brought a rightwing coalition headed by Berlusconi to power in 1994. Two things stood out in the conduct of that campaign: its reliance on the excessive powers the judges and prosecutors and the relative powerlessness of the suspects, and its symbiotic relationship with the media, which amplified and simplified the cleansing rhetoric of the Milanese giudici. Keeping these two in mind two helps to understand Berlusconi’s later behavior.

Perry Anderson, the British historian and political theorist (the brother of the late Benedict Anderson, whose Imagined Communities, as I have read somewhere, is required reading for some members of Putin’s presidential administration), wrote in 2002:

Far more pressing, in reality, was the need for reform of Italian justice, with its mixture of a Fascist-derived legal code, arbitrary emergency powers, and chaotic procedural and carceral conditions. Here, indeed, has long been a panorama without equivalent elsewhere in Western Europe. There is no habeas corpus in Italy, where anyone can be clapped into jail without charges for over three years, under the system of custodia cautelare – ‘preventive detention’ – that is responsible for locking up more than half the prison population in the country. Not only can witnesses be guaranteed immunity from prosecution under the rules of ‘repentance’ orpentitismo: they can be paid for suitable testimony by the state without even having to appear in court, or any record being visible of what they receive for their evidence… In the magistracy, there is no separation of careers, and little of functions, between prosecutors and judges… The trial system has three stages, the average length is ten years, and the backlog of cases in the courts is now some three million. In this jungle, inefficiency alone rivals brutality, in part mitigating, in part compounding it.

Also see my translation of Luttwak’s 2013 interview.

Such was the system suddenly mobilised by crusading magistrates against political corruption in the North and the Mafia in the South… Custodia cautelare was deliberately used as an instrument of intimidation. Illegal leaks of impending notices of investigation were regularly employed to bring down targeted office-holders. Tainted evidence was mustered without qualms: in the case against Andreotti, a key witness for the state was a thug who, embarrassingly, committed another murder while on the payroll of the authorities for his deposition. Any idea of separating the careers of prosecutor and judge was attacked with ferocity. The rationalisation of these practices was always the same. Italy was in a state of emergency; justice could not afford to be over-nice about individual rights.

Sounds familiar. Berlusconi’s self-serving counterattacks did little to reform this system. But the EU and the ECHR seem to be putting some salutary pressure on it.


Lynch is no Di Pietro

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May 6, 2016 by AK

The theory that Donald Trump is neither quite a Hitler nor truly a Mussolini but an American Silvio Berlusconi is increasingly popular and invariably superficial. (Politically; psychologically, who knows?) It seems to ignore the constants of Trump’s campaign, which occasionally get lost amid the fireworks. Although Trump speaks in hyperbole and seems unsafely volatile, he is consistent in his concern for two issues, free trade and immigration. The solutions he has offhandedly proposed are no good, in the same way as most ideas proposed at a brainstorming session are little good, although some end up as raw material for workable policies. What matters to Trump supporters is his unrelenting focus on the core issues. “We need to do something about it” is more important than having a detailed plan at once.

I doubt that immigration and trade featured big in Berlusconi’s 2001 “Contract with the Italians.” He had promised to get tougher on illegals but that was essentially small print. The background to Berlusconi’s political ascent was the aggressive, largely self-serving “anti-corruption” campaign – known as mani pulite, or clean hands – waged by a group of Milan prosecutors and judges in 1992. The most famous, if not originally the most influential, of that group was Antonio Di Pietro, who would later assemble a small political party of his own.

The anti-mafia legislation of the 1980s had expanded the powers of judges and prosecutors. These powers were vigorously exercised – and abused – by the magistrates who led the “clean hands” campaign. Within a few years, it destroyed both the Socialists and the Christian Democrats as well as the Social Democrats and the Liberals – all the four parties that had founded the First Italian Republic.

Berlusconi stepped onto the field cleared for him by the activist prosecutors.

(To be continued.)


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