The Lilliput syndrome

20 October 2016
Only in en
‘Transit’ responds to Russia's politics of fear; ‘New Eastern Europe’ condemns human rights pragmatism; ‘Index on Censorship’ defends the right to anonymity; ‘Vikerkaar’ talks trees; ‘Czas Kultury’ considers conspiracy theories; ‘Ord&Bild’ reports on heritage wars; ‘dérive’ confronts the new housing question; ‘Letras Libres’ declines populisms; and ‘Vagant’ has no fun with industrial.

Threadbare charges, confessions under torture, disregard of evidence, forced naturalization, kidnapping, illegal transportation from Crimea to the Russian mainland – in Transit (Austria), Ukrainian civil-rights activist Maria Tomak reports on the ‘show trials’ of Crimean members of the Ukrainian opposition after the Russian annexation.

Most famously, in August 2015, filmmaker and Maidan activist Oleg Sentsov and environmentalist Olexandr Kolchenko were tried for terrorism and sentenced to twenty years forced labour in Yakutia in north-eastern Russia. The trial, writes Tomak, was meant to ‘sow fear in the minds and the hearts of the inhabitants of Crimea, to convince them of the inexorability of the slogan ‘Crimea belongs to us’, and to warn all those unhappy with the occupation against protest in any form.’ The Russian media are almost always present, creating an image of Ukrainians as ‘terrorists’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘war criminals’ and ‘spies’. The propaganda works, according to opinion polls: a survey carried out in 2015 by the Levada Centre – itself recently charged with espionage – revealed that 63 per cent of Russians have a negative attitude towards Ukraine.

Politics of fear: The Kremlin’s new politics of fear has economic reasons, writes Russian political scientist Vladimir Gelman. Russia’s economic growth during the 2000s allowed the Kremlin to co-opt the establishment and placate the public; after the 2008 economic crisis and political protests of 2011/12, ‘authoritarian equilibrium’ could be maintained only by outright repression. Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is an ‘asymmetrical response’ to its domestic challenges, Gelman argues: the conflict with the West over Crimea creates a rally-round-the-flag effect at home that allows the Kremlin to cast opponents as a ‘fifth column’. Whether or not the Kremlin believes its own propaganda, ‘this argument allows the regime […] to legitimize the policy of repression, which meets with little resistance.”

Hungary: Fidesz’s constitutional counter-revolution has reversed the process of democratization begun in Hungary in 1989. Seeking reasons for Hungary’s ‘backsliding’, constitutional lawyer Gábor Halmai argues that democratic culture is more crucial than formal legality to guaranteeing rule of law. Hungary challenges the EU’s ability to prevent illiberal democracies emerging in its midst.

More articles from Transit;

In New Eastern Europe (Poland), Belarusian activist and opposition politician Andrei Sannikov urges the international community to pay more attention to the plight of political prisoners held under the ‘cooperative of dictators’ that now presides over most of the former Soviet space. Sannikov, who was himself imprisoned in 2010 for running against ‘the last dictator in Europe’, Alexander Lukashenka, argues that the failure of intergovernmental organizations to demand standards on human rights allows regimes to get away with releasing a handful of well-known political prisoners – and then to jail many more low-key activists.

‘European and international organizations founded on democratic principles have begun weakening those foundations by taking soft positions on human rights abuses, referring to “changed geopolitical circumstances”. They increasingly yield to the pressure of dictatorial regimes and their supporters. Geopolitical, economic and business arguments have begun to prevail where policy towards dictatorial regimes such as Belarus is formed. Human rights have fallen victim to the politics of “new pragmatism”.’

Imprisoned for using social media: Irina Borogan, deputy editor of the Russian portal, considers Russia’s security agencies to be beyond control:

‘Even just a couple of years ago, people who dared to criticize the Kremlin on the Internet were not prosecuted. That changed a year ago, when the authorities began putting people in jail for writing posts critical of the Kremlin. Now, dozens are jailed for posting content on social media. Some of them did not even write anything. They simply re-posted material that someone else had posted.’

Literature: A section on the literary life of Kraków and Lviv, both now UNESCO Cities of Literature. Highlights include interviews with Oleksandra Koval, the founder of the Lviv Publishers’ Forum (Ukraine’s largest annual book fair, attended by around 50,000 people last September); and with Robert Piaskowski, director of Kraków’s City of Literature programme.

More articles from New Eastern Europe;

Introducing the theme of the current issue of Index on Censorship (UK), Rachael Jolley writes that anonymity ‘protects from danger, and it allows those who wouldn’t be able to speak or write to get the words out. … From the early days of Index on Censorship, when writing was being smuggled across borders and out of authoritarian countries, the need for anonymity was paramount.’

Encryption: Despite the NSA revelations, encryption technology remains largely unused. The introduction of encryption by the chat app WhatsApp, in partnership with the non-profit software group Open Whisper Systems, points to the way forward, writes anti-censorship campaigner Charlie Smith (pseudonym). “The internet freedom community … needs to recognize that most people are not interested in using new apps and tools. Instead, the focus should be on integrating privacy, secure communications and encryption into the world’s most popular communications platforms.’

Surveillance: Fear of loss of anonymity and privacy can only be answered by trust in the secret services, argues journalist John Lloyd. ‘A population made fearful and angry by constant attacks is one which becomes careless of democratic procedure and the rights of minorities. We do need the secret services, and we need them to be both in the front line against that threat, as well as fully and explicitly within the institutions of the democratic state.’ Citing constitutional lawyer Philip Bobbitt – ‘terrorism itself might become a threat to the legitimacy of those states that depend on the consent of those governed’ – Lloyd argues that ‘a failure to stop or at least moderate terrorist attacks will make a democratic and civil society less democratic and civil.’

Anonymity: Caroline Lees on protecting fixers in warzones; Kaya Genc on why artists in Turkey use alter egos; and Rupert Myers on the power of anonymous allegations to damage politicians.

Free speech in Russia: The main weapon of the ‘conservative restoration’ since Putin’s third term in 2012 has been the traditional media; the Kremlin’s total control of television ensures the loyalty of 70 to 80 per cent of the electorate. However, ten years after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the authorities are beginning to target the enclaves of free speech that have developed online, writes Andrey Arkhangelsky. ‘The main target of government attacks in the future is likely to be the internet, with an attempt to take control of social networks.’

More articles from Index on Censorship;

The first autumn issue of Vikerkaar (Estonia) looks to the wilds. In recent years, the myth has been resurrected of Finno-Ugric peoples’ special connection to forests, marshlands and wilderness. Although not true for Estonians and Finns, for other northern communities the forest does indeed play a large role. Ethnographer Art Leete looks at how writers throughout the centuries have characterized the Siberian Komi people as ancient hunters, inhabiting in the borderland between forest and village. The ambiguous, quasi-mystical character of the forest is, according to Leete, at the heart of its importance in Komi cosmology. It is also what makes the Komi relationship to the forest interesting for ethnographers and anthropologists, who struggle to square Komi forest-talk with the scientific precision demanded by their discipline.

The dissident history of trees: Environmental and cultural historian Jane Costlow analyzes forests as a symbol for environmental and social protest in Russia, looking at one contemporary example: the Dubki park protests in Moscow. Environmentalists invoke Russian poets and painters, from Nikolay Nekrasov to Ilya Repin, to protest against the authorities’ destruction of green spaces. For Russian environmentalists, chopping down trees is not simply an offence against green urban planning and the rule of law, but a denial of Russian culture. Fantasy and the ability to make witty connections to Russian heritage accompanies more legalistic and political approaches to popular protest, according to Costlow.

More articles from Vikerkaar;

Consider conspiracy theories for what they are: modes of critical interpretation countering mainstream opinion, writes Czas Kultury (Poland). Conspiracy narratives should not be considered a priori to be false and dangerous.

Historicizing conspiracy theory: Interviewed by Wojciech Hamerski and Krzysztof Hoffman, sociologist Franciszek Czech argues that, in historical terms, the form conspiracy theories take is more telling than their frequency. The nineteenth century is often referred to as an age of conspiracy, as an era of freemasonry and secret liberation movements. With the emergence of the democratic state, evil ceased to be blamed on the Illuminati or the Masons, but on government agencies, secret services, lobbies and corporations.

‘Old conspiracy narratives with an external enemy could indeed legitimize atrocities, acts of revenge on Jesuits, Masons and Jews. In new narratives, where the whole system comes under suspicion, acts of aggression are rare; more often we observe a withdrawal from the public space. … The Polish sociologist Stanislaw Ossowski called it the Lilliput syndrome: when the big people govern, I have no influence over anything, everything has been set up, so why even vote.’

Transparency: Conspiracy theories sparked by the FBI vs. Apple case concerning access to smartphone data highlight the ‘material infrastructure’ of conspiracy theories. As knowledge about advanced technology becomes more elusive for the public, technology comes to be considered a greater danger than manipulation by influential individuals or institutions, writes Marta Habdas.

More articles from Czas Kultury;

It is 2016, and Swedish cultural debate seems to be back in the 1970s. China expert Ola Wong has accused the social democratic-green government of abandoning the principle that cultural institutions must not be instrumentalized politically. This has triggered a heated debate on cultural heritage and “anti-oppressive education”.

In Dagens Nyheter, Wong accused the cultural ministry of treating the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities and the Museum of Ethnography like peacekeeping troops, whose defined task is to contribute to democratic development in problematic countries, focusing on sustainability, fairness and the perspective of poor people. Compare that, writes Wong, to the official mission of the US Smithsonian: ‘The increase and diffusion of knowledge’.

Against this background, Ord&Bild‘s double issue on cultural heritage couldn’t be more topical. In interview, culture minister Alice Bah Kuhnke explains why it is especially important for Sweden to develop a new cultural heritage policy. Among the EU member states, she says, there is an increasing tendency towards a nationalization of discourse on cultural heritage, and towards promoting cultural heritage as a way to strengthen national identity. Swedish policy should counteract this tendency, she argues.

Curating: Despite the historical presence of Muslims in Europe, a supposed dichotomy between Islam and Europe means that representations of European cultural heritage exclude Islam. Multiculturalist avowals notwithstanding, European museums reproduce the orientalism of the nineteenth century, argues curator Klas Grinell:

‘The Louvre in Paris, the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Victoria & Albert and the British Museum in London, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, have all presented, or are about to present, lavish new exhibitions of Islamic art. Many beautiful words about tolerance and cultural dialogue have been spoken at the openings of these exhibitions. But what do they actually exhibit? The same old ceramics and carpets; objects that were never collected with an aim of creating an understanding of Islam or represent the cultural heritage of ordinary Muslims.’

More articles from Ord & Bild;

Coinciding with seventh Urbanize festival in Vienna and Hamburg, the new issue of dérive (Austria) addresses the question of ‘Housing the Many’. Responses to the housing shortage in European cities today – build as much, as fast, as cheaply as possible – recall post-war functionalism and the ‘new building’ movement of the 1920s, argues issue editor Michael Klein. These movements themselves stemmed from the liberal-philanthropic and socially conservative housing reforms of the nineteenth century. Only with rise of the Social Democratic movement did large scale building programmes take off. Yet utopianism soon turned to pragmatism: satisfaction of elementary housing needs became a way to sedate and reproduce the workforce.

In other words, today’s housing question has historical parallels. These lie not in housing standards as such, which can’t be compared to those of the nineteenth century, but in discourse on housing and the solutions offered: above all land reform and rent regulation. ‘Once again, the housing question is discussed when it reaches the centre of society.’ Where poverty is all too unsightly, old liberal arguments about hygiene and security return: as with the eviction of the Jungle Camp in Calais in March 2016.

Affordable housing: The new mantra of affordability also has a history. Carsten Praum looks at Berlin, where households in social accommodation whose rent exceeds 25 to 30 per cent of their income now receive housing benefit. The result of public pressure, this benefit is all well and good, yet the ‘ratio approach’ is also part of the problem. Having emerged in the late-nineteenth century as a purely statistical measure, the ‘one week’s wage for one month’s rent’ rule developed into a normative measure of affordability.

Only in the 1970s did criticism appear, writes Praum. The ‘residual income approach’ proposed by Michael E. Stone defines affordability as the amount left from household income after other essential living costs have been deducted. This ‘sliding scale of affordability’ means that some households can afford nothing for housing, while others can afford more than the established ratio. It needs to be promoted both in statistics and in urban movements, Praum writes, in order to ‘denaturalize the affordability myth’.

More articles from dérive;

Letras Libres (Spain) focuses on ‘the losers of globalization’, diagnosing ‘a new political schism that separates the advocates of open economies and societies from those who defend a retreat to national organization and closed values’. Manuel Alejandro Hidalgo looks at regional explanations for populist movements, both left and right, arguing that:

‘Populism manifests itself as the confrontation between “them” and “us”, and in each case the “them” has a different incarnation. Whether it’s the fight against immigrants, against capital, against socialists, against Mexicans and irresponsible southern neighbours, or against institutions that govern us and take away our sovereignty. It doesn’t matter. There might be economic factors that explain everything. Or there might be non-economic factors like wars, hunger and the Mafia. What unites them in a common emergent force, similar in numerous countries, is that they give simple and plain answers, look for a stereotypical culprit and channel all efforts into a sole objective: to assume power.’

Intellectuals and experts: More than techno-scientific efficacy, argues Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán, political decision making must consider the plurality of conflicting interests present in a society. Politics is obliged to think in dilemmas, to make judgements, to take responsibility for its decisions, she writes. This is ‘quite the opposite of truth, the unique solution, because in the social world everything is permeated by ambivalence and conflict’.

Solidarity: If the financial and economic crisis divided the EU between North and South, the refugee crisis re-opened the gap between East and West. What we are seeing today, writes Ivan Krastev in an article first published in Transit, is not what Brussels describes as a lack of solidarity, but a clash of solidarities: national, ethnic and religious solidarity chafing against our obligations as human beings.

More articles from Letras Libres;

Vagant (Norway) celebrates the fortieth anniversary of Industrial Music – an anti-melodic mix of electronic and instrumental composition that came out of London in the 1970s, writes Joni Hyvönen. In 1976, the ICA in London opened its doors for Prostitution, a mixed-media art exhibition designed to cause maximum offence – displays included meat cleavers, chains and framed cuttings from porno magazines. The curators later reformed as the band Throbbing Gristle and set up a record company, Industrial Records. According to Hyvönen, an anthology of its production – The Industrial Records Story (1984) – was a running commentary on a failed social and political order, ‘a black-and-white documentary showing up the cruel reality of a waning capitalist society’.

Occultism: In the early ’80s, when Industrial got too popular, Throbbing Gristle dissolved and re-emerged as Psychic TV, the performance arm of the cult named ‘Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth’. Engelsen Espedal and Audun Lindholm seek the core ideas of Thee Temple of Psychick Youth in its manifesto. Invoking the magick of British occultist Aleister Crowley, Psychic TV’s music had titles such as the such as ‘The King of Depravity’ and ‘The Beast’. It all followed from the belief that ‘We have reached crisis point … faced with the debasement of man to a creature without feelings, without knowledge and pride of self’. The way to deal with existential despair is to rebel and ‘to fight alongside us in Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth’. Or else, risk being ‘permanently addicted to the drug of the commonplace’.

More articles from Vagant;

Published 20 October 2016

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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