"Transparency" in scare quotes

21 December 2011
Only in en
Esprit sheds new perspectives on the Arab Revolutions; Gegenworte argues that good science is good business; Index on Censorship calls for greater transparency in pharmaceutical trials; Arena sees Swedish transparency clouded by closed Stasi archives; La Revue Nouvelle says beware “transparency”, it’s not what it seems; Dileme veche accounts for Romania’s lack of international clout; Varlik examines society’s conscience; and Ord&Bild gets positive reviews.

Why were Algeria and to a lesser extent Morocco left out in the cold during the Arab spring? The answer in Algeria’s case, writes Jean-Pierre Peyroulou in Esprit, lies in a combination of fatigue after 15 years of violence, the regime’s effective use of gas and oil revenues to appease potential protesters, and the fact that Algeria already had a “spring” in 1988 (even if it led to civil war).

Tunisia also rose up at the turn of the 1990s, but the result was a “descent into unprecedented police authoritarianism”, recalls Pierre Vermeren in a discussion of the divergent paths that led the Arab nations to set history in motion in 2011. Their pasts are various but all have one thing in common; the “terrible decade” caused by the West’s politics of convenience during the war on terrorism after 9/11.

“European and American partners, so concerned about the progress of democracy in the world, accepted that the Arab world was a vast zone of lawlessness,” writes Vermeren. “In exchange for their cooperation, heads of state had carte blanche to control their peoples and extend the compromise negotiated during independence: independence of the state in exchange for the continued repression of the population, transferred from the colonial authorities to the new state-controlled national authorities.”

Post-Islamism: It is, of course, the memory of the ultimate triumph of the Islamic Salvation Front in the Algerian Civil War that followed the 1988 uprising that is now putting the fear of God into western observers. But, says Olivier Roy, the Arab nations may be headed for a “post-Islamic” period. “Very often, secularization goes hand in hand with a rise in fundamentalism,” he argues, noting that the Arab revolutions have seen Islamic parties move towards a more secular politics.

Divide and rule: Islamism should be understood in the context of “the unequal state of the world and disaffection with states that are ‘necessary’ but have become inconsistent because they are hamstrung by economic globalization and financial systems which they themselves put in place”, writes Olivier Mongin. Only if the West ends its “divide and rule” politics in the Arab countries can the Islamists be prevented from seizing power – something that is feared as much by many people in the countries that have risen up as by the West itself, writes Gérard Khoury.

The full table of contents of Esprit 12/2011

Basic versus applied research: the one interested purely in objective truth, the latter concerned primarily with practical and commercial use. A new issue of Gegenworte vigorously refutes this distinction. As such it reflects the spirit of German government research and innovation policy, which, according to a 2010 report, aims to “create leading markets” and “deepen collaboration between science and business”. Focussed on the “big five fields” – climate/energy, health/nutrition, mobility, security and communication – German high-tech strategy “contributes to solving the pressing global problems of our time, at the same time addressing the mega-markets of the twenty-first century”.

Günter Stock, physiologist, former board member of the pharmaceuticals company Schering and President of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (the publisher of Gegenworte), cites a US study showing that 75 per cent of patent applications in the high-tech sector are based on state-funded basic research. Does this mean, Stock asks, that basic research can be defined as research that is unapplied but that one day could become applied? Or does unapplied research mean more that that?

“Particularly in medicine,” writes Stock, “these institutional boundaries no longer exist. Today, someone investigating the structure and function of a gene […] works both in the academic, state-funded sector as well as in industry. Industrial research, i.e. ‘applied research’, can’t afford not to register a patent as soon as possible – in other words at the level of the gene or the protein – in order to guarantee the right to development, and thereby to be able to keep up with the international competition. Equally, a basic researcher is concerned with the value of their work for reasons of self-interest alone, namely to have a solid commercial basis in case an application turns up at a later stage.”

Can an ethical distinction be made between basic and applied research? Should the one be funded by the state and the other not? “No”, writes Stock. “I firmly believe that these terms are outdated and, of course, that the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ research is too simple. […] In a world that depends on science, a world in which newly-won knowledge can be applied in extraordinary ways, we need to find new criteria and not persist with old schemata with their many connotations.”

The full table of contents of Gegenworte 26 (2011)

“Medical history is replete with examples of the benefits of a treatment being overhyped and potentially serious side-effects being buried, leading to poor decisions,” writes Deborah Cohen in an issue of Index looking at freedom of information. “This wastes public money and can cost human lives.” In many cases drugs are first licensed and then suspended from the market, despite there having been serious concerns from the start. This was the case with the diabetes drug Avandia, Cohen writes:

“In 1999, when the drug was first licensed, Dr John Buse, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina […] was concerned that while Avandia lowered blood sugar, it also caused an increased risk of heart problems.” Although “some say that open discussions and more transparency do not necessarily lead to better decisions, […] documents obtained from the European regulators under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) showed that advisers had concerns about Avandia’s side effects from the outset. And knowing about these could have lent support to other academics who were ‘intimidated’ by the company, according to a 2007 report by the US Senate Finance Committee.”

On the basis of these and other examples, Cohen makes the case that all results from medical trials need to be publicly available, in order to enable evidence-based policy making instead of policy-based evidence making.

Whistle stop: “Without the aberrant intervention of a whistle blower,” writes Peter Wilmshurst, “poor practise in institutions and misconduct by individuals are usually concealed. We need to understand why only a minority of people who are aware of matters of serious public concern, such as patient safety in the National Health Service or misconduct, are prepared to be whistleblowers, and the majority of people collude in a cover-up by self-censoring.”

Whistleblowers are often shunned, writes Wilmshurst, and risk facing hostility both from the state and from their peers. “Many organizations have codes of conduct that require a member to keep silent about misconduct or bad practice by its members. […] It is no surprise that the mafia has a code of omertá. It is more surprising that the General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates and licenses doctors to practice in the UK, has a rule that may impede one doctor raising concerns about another (codified in ‘Good Medical Practice’, its guide for doctors).”

The full table of contents of Index on Censorship 4/2011

Sweden is often described as one of the most open and transparent countries in the world – above all by Swedes. Faced with some of the dilemmas that most European states have had to deal with in the last decades, this (self-)image is now starting to crumble as the government blocks access to archives of Swedish security police Säpo. These archives include details about Swedes who had helped the German Democratic Republic’s Stasi intelligence service.

“Open the Stasi archives!” say three public intellectuals in a survey published in Arena. “All archives should be open, always.” But after a while it gets more complicated. History can’t be dealt with on the level of the individual, says Sara Edenheim. What about the CIA agents? asks Rasmus Malm. And finally, writer and politician America Vera Zavala brings in the personal aspect:

“For the sake of argument let’s presume that my father was a Swedish citizen active on the Left and that some less honest political adversary denounced him as a Stasi spy, and that Säpo recorded this as the truth. Let’s presume that he was dead and that the archives were made public. What would I do then? And would it be put to political use against me?”

Welcome to Europe, Sweden.

The real cause of the crisis: “The debt crisis has been explained in a thousand different ways”, writes new Arena editor Mikael Feldbaum. “But none of them is so simple, fundamental and credible as Michael Kumhof’s: it is growing social inequality that has created the huge debts.”

Kumhof, a leading economist at the International Monetary Fund, explains in interview: “The income of the richest five per cent of the population has increased so much that they can’t use up all their money. There’s a limit to how many Armani suits you can wear. […] What remains is to lend the money to the banking sector. At the same time the remaining 95 per cent of the population is left with a smaller share than before. They have to borrow in order to keep consuming as before. […] A large supply of money from the rich five per cent and a great demand for loans on the side of the remaining 95 per cent – that’s what created the current crisis.”

The full table of contents of Arena 6/2011

Transparency and opacity, revelation and concealment, honesty and dishonesty, the need to know versus the right to privacy: a dossier in La Revue Nouvelle shows that talking about transparency always involves a dialectic. What kind of society is it, asks sociologist Christophe Mincke, that deems secrecy, intimacy, reserve, confidentiality and modesty to be suspect?

“Our world renders invisible whatever disturbs it: the French President’s ‘love handles’, models’ cellulite, the elderly, drug-addicts and anything else that infringes the collective dreams of a networked society accustomed to a perfectly smooth and satisfactory exchange of images. What scandalizes now is not revealing but revealing badly. You can show that you are old providing that you adopt the stance of an active, productive, ‘senior’, with plans for the future and happy with your lot. […] You can go in for ‘personal branding’ on Twitter, but remember: there is a right and a wrong way to do it. Anything can be shown, so long as you pay attention to presentation.”

Social networking: Picking up on Mark Zuckerberg’s view that “privacy is no longer a social norm”, Nicolas Baygert sees Facebook and Twitter as tools for narcissistic self-promotion, personal life as an “ongoing collaborative project”. Baygert refers to the “journalism of indignation”, pointing to the “moralizing posture of the fourth estate”. Arnaud Cambier makes a related point, arguing that transparency is cynically exploited in populist political debate: behaviour whose disclosure is no way in the public interest must nevertheless be dragged into the open for the sake of “transparency”. Indeed, the more one reads, the more one feels that this word should always be enclosed in scare quotes.

The body: Charlotte Pezeril traces the illusory history of the transparency of bodies, beginning in the eighteenth century when, as a result of the new practice of autopsy, medicine ceased to be the science of life and became the science of disease. Focusing on the present and, in particular, on the recently-developed ability to measure viral load in HIV cases, Pezeril raises the question of the clash between medical confidentiality and a partner’s right to know, between the right to privacy and the right to protection.

The full table of contents of La Revue Nouvelle 12/2011

Romania’s lack of credibility in Brussels has caused its voice to go unheard during the euro crisis, writes Ovidiu Nahoi in Dilema veche (402). Romanian president Traian Basescu first blamed EU indecision for the country’s high borrowing charges on international financial markets – despite Romania having dutifully implemented tough austerity measures last year. Basescu then accused Holland and Finland of disregarding commitments on accepting Romania into the Schengen space. On both occasions, writes Nahoi, Basescu was technically correct. So why was he completely ignored? Has Romania’s failure to absorb billions of euros of EU funds, a consequence of corruption and inefficiency, led to the view in Brussels that fixing up the mess at home is a precondition for making claims at the European level?

Romania’s lack of clout can be further illuminated through comparison with Poland, writes Nahoi (400). Though the two countries are similar both in size and geopolitical significance and have an equal interest in a functional EU, the Poles outperform the Romanians. Poland has thus far weathered the crisis, it has successfully completed a term at the helm of the EU and has a functional administration and low corruption levels. All this makes Poland a much more credible partner.

Civil society: “In Romania it’s easier to build a bridge or a park together with some neighbours than to persuade public authorities take action,” writes Florina Presada (400). “Communicating with the authorities is a difficult and unpredictable process.” As a result, many civil society activists feel they are engaged in Quixotic tasks. “The activist feels as if, in a community of 10,000, he or she is the only one to regularly clean up the rubbish,” writes Nicusor Dan, a mathematician campaigning against the demolition of historical buildings in Bucharest. “Meanwhile, the other 9,999 are busy bragging about how proud they are to be Romanian.”

Active art: Bogdan Georgescu (402) describes a project developing in the Romanian countryside since 2009 in which local culture houses (camin cultural, state-funded cultural institutions founded during the socialist period and largely abandoned after 1989) are being revitalized to host exhibitions for contemporary art.

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 400-407 (2011)

Citing Lucretius, Hugo and Dostoyevsky, Altay Ömer Erdogan charts the historical journey of individual and societal conscience, likening the latter to the mirror belonging to Snow White’s evil step mother – albeit a virtual one that people fear to ask the crucial questions of the age. It is now the responsibility of writers and intellectuals, rather than politicians and religious figures, to form this societal conscience, writes Erdogan. They must do so not just by looking, seeing and revealing but also by helping people see the misfortune, pain and victimization of others.

“The thing that is expected from the writer is this: to create a new and meaningful literature using identities that are attacked, either because of their essence or their style. In an age when writers are bestowed with the label of the intellectual, it shouldn’t be seen as a luxury to expect a literature that is individual in its freedom and free in its individuality. [When] individual and social pain have become codified and these codes are swiped on supermarket cash registers, the bill deferred with credit card payments, then the writer must have a score to settle.”

The Freudian way: Societal conscience finds its strength not in the masses, like other forms of social behaviour, but in the actions of the individual conscience and the sum total of these individual consciences, writes Figen Abaci. “The analysis of social behaviour has mostly been contained in the spheres of sociology, philosophy and even politics. However, as Freud also argues, it is the steps taken during individual psychological development that form the spirit and psychology of the masses.” Using Freud’s triptych of id, ego and superego, Abaci constructs a path to a higher societal conscience that transcends the popular culture of consumerism and instant gratification.

Also: Writer Murathan Mungan travels through his world of literature and philosophy, offering recommendations to young novelists, likening Spinoza’s life and death to a plot from Turkish children’s writer Kemalettin Tugcu, and lauding the often underrated science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin.

The full table of contents of Varlik 12/2011)

In a new issue dedicated to literary criticism, Swedish journal Ord&Bild stretches the limits of what is regarded to be a literary review.

Conceptually interesting is artist and art critic Conny Blom’s review of the very issue in which his text appears: it is entitled “A positive review of Ord&Bild‘s issue on critique”. In 2003, at the art fair Art Moscow, Blom initiated the project “Buy a Positive Review”. During the fair he offered to write appraisals of the exhibiting artists and their works – provided he was paid, of course (300 euros per review). This project has now moved to the Internet and any artist can contact Blom to get a personalized review.

His Ord&Bild article is full of phrases such as “an important contribution to Swedish cultural debate”, “a spearhead”, “indispensable”, but it does go into the details of more or less every text in the issue and could easily be mistaken for a “real” review.

The (negative) critique of the “art business” implicit in Blom’s positive review project is just as relevant today as it was when initiated a decade ago. If not more. The Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently reported on an Internet portal called Theaterkritik.ch, where theatres and dance companies can order reviews of their plays and performances. For 600 Swiss francs per premiere you get two reviews. Positive, one presumes…

The full table of contents of Ord&Bild 4/2011

Published 21 December 2011

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


recommended articles