The War on Academic Free Speech in Russia

snowden

Why Should Professors Have Free Speech?
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
November 10, 2019

The desire of certain universities to control the things the public intellectuals they employ as professors say about socially important issues teeters on the verge of censorship and can hardly benefit their reputations, demonstrating only the growing fears of their administrators.

On Friday, the Higher School of Economics made public the decision of its ethics board, which voted seven to one in favor of recommending that Gasan Gusejnov, a linguist employed in the university’s humanities faculty, apologize for his “ill-considered and irresponsible” remarks on his personal Facebook page regarding the “cesspool-like” Russian used by the Russian media. The majority of council members found the statement had caused “serious harm” to the university’s “professional reputation.”

In particular, the ethics board referred to recommendations for university staff members regarding public statements: “If the public statements of employees touch on issues that are matters of considerable public controversy […] it is recommended they refrain from mentioning the university by name.”

However, Gusejnov did not mention his position at the university in the Facebook post that sparked a witch hunt against him on social media and in pro-Kremlin media outlets. Gusejnov said he did not intend to apologize, as he had not yet received an official request to apologize from the university. This triggered a new wave of invective against him.

The persecution of university lecturers and students for political reasons cannot be called something new. In March 2014, MGIMO terminated its contract with Professor Andrey Zubov after his statements about the situation in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. In April 2015, the Smolny Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University fired political scientist and human rights expert Dmitry Dubrovsky for his public remarks. In November 2016, Alexei Petrov was fired from his post as deputy dean of the history faculty at Irkutsk State University, allegedly, for disciplinary violations, but it was actually a complaint to the prosecutor’s office by a member of the National Liberation Movement (NOD) that led to his dismissal. In March 2018, the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyarsk forced philosophy lecturer Mikhail Konstantinov to resign after he had shown students Don’t Call Him Dimon, a 2017 video exposé by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

The right to one’s opinions, even critical opinions, cannot be made dependent on a person’s job. Even with regard to civil servants, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that their official positions could not be tantamount to a total ban on the public expression of critical opinions, including in the media. It is all the more impossible to train and educate professionals without critical thinking, free discussion, and the exchange of opinions: without these things, learning turns into scholasticism. Lecturers capable of lively, unconventional thought make the reputations of universities.

There have been other such examples in the history of the Higher School of Economics. The university did not react when, in October 2013, Vladimir Putin called Professor Sergei Medvedev a “fool” for arguing that the Arctic should be administered internationally. Now, however, its administrators have probably been forced to yield to the pressure, hoping that by sacrificing individuals it can maintain control over its professors. But this is a precarious path to a questionable goal.

Image courtesy of democraticunderground.com. Translated by the Russian Reader

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“Seven Years in Prison for Two Pages”: An Open Letter by Journalist Svetlana Prokopieva

“Seven Years in Prison for Two Pages”: An Open Letter by Journalist Svetlana Prokopieva
Republic
October 1, 2019

Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopieva faces up to seven years in prison for her published comments. In November of last year—first, in a broadcast on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov, then on the website Pskov Newswire—she discussed the reasons why a 17-year-old man blew himself up at the FSB office in Arkhangelsk. She has now been charged with publicly “condoning” terrorism, as punishable under Article 205.2.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.

On October 1, Echo Moscow, Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, Takie Dela, Snob, MBKh Media, 7×7, Pskovskaya Guberniya, MOKH, Wonderzine, and Meduza published an open letter by Prokopieva. We have joined them in this act of solidarity.

***********

My name (our name?) is Svetlana Prokopieva. I am a journalist, and I could be sent to prison for seven years for “condoning” terrorism.

Nearly a year ago, there was a bomb blast in Arkhangelsk. It was unexpected and stunning: 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky blew himself up in the entrance to the FSB office there. Before he did this, he wrote he was blowing himself up because the FSB had become “brazen,” framing and torturing people.

The suicide bombing was the subject of my regular commentary on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov. “Acting intentionally,” I wrote a text entitled “Crackdowns for the State.” My commentary was aired on November 7 and then was published on the website Pskov Newswire.

Nearly a month passed before Pskov Newswire and Echo of Moscow received warnings from Roskomnadzor: Russia’s quasi-censor saw evidence I had “condoned” terrorism in my comments. In early December, administrative charges were filed against the two media outlets, costing them 350,000 rubles in fines when a justice of the peace found them guilty of the charges. Simultaneously, the Pskov office of the Russian Investigative Committee launched an inquiry into whether I had personally violated Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. Criminal prosecution loomed as a distinct possibility, but we laughed, thinking they must be crazy. What could they mean by “condoning” terrorism? In its warnings, Roskomnadzor failed to point to a single phrase or even word that would qualify as evidence that I had condoned terrorism. Nor could it point them out because they were not there. As it soon transpired, however, that did not matter.

On February 6, my doorbell rang. When I opened it, a dozen armed, helmeted men rushed in, pinning me to the wall in the far room with their shields. This was how I found out the authorities had, in fact, decided to file charges against me.

A police search is a disgusting, humiliating procedure. One group of strangers roots through your things while another group of strangers looks on indifferently. Old notes, receipts, and letters sent from other countries take on a suspicious, criminal tinge, demanding an explanation. The things you need the most, including your laptop and telephone, are turned into “physical evidence.” Your colleagues and family members are now liable to becoming “accomplices” without even trying.

I was robbed that day: the authorities confiscated three laptops, two telephones, a dictaphone, and flash drives. When they blocked my bank accounts six months later, they robbed me again: I was only a “suspect” when I was placed on Rosfinmonitoring’s list of “extremists” and “terrorists.” I am now unable to get a bank card in my own name, open a savings account or apply for a mortgage. The Russian state has made it impossible for me to exist financially.

All that remained for the authorities was to rob me of the last thing I had: my freedom. On September 20, I was officially charged with violating Article 205.2.2 of the criminal code: condoning terrorism via the mass media. If convicted, I could be fined up to one million rubles or sent to prison for up to seven years.

I deny any wrongdoing. I consider the charges against me petty revenge on the part of security services officers offended by my remarks. I claimed they were responsible for the blast in Arkhangelsk. I wrote that the state’s crackdowns had generated a backlash: brutal law enforcement policies had embittered people. Since legal means of protesting had been blocked, the desire to protest had been pushed into such socially dangerous channels.

Publish this quotation from my text if you are not afraid.

“A strong state. A strong president, a strong governor. A country in which power belongs to strongmen.

“The Arkhangelsk suicide bomber’s generation has grown up in this atmosphere. They know it is forbidden to attend protest rallies: police can break up rallies or, worse, they can beat up protesters and then convict them of crimes. This generation knows that solo pickets are a punishable offense. They see that you can belong only to certain political parties without suffering for it and that you can voice only a certain range of opinions without fearing for your safety. This generation has been taught that you cannot find justice in court: judges will return the verdicts the law enforcement agencies and prosecutors want them to return.

“The long-term restriction of political and civic freedoms has given rise in Russia to state that is not only devoid of liberty but oppressive, a state with which it is unsafe and scary to deal.”

This is what I still think. Moreover, in my opinion, the Russian state has only confirmed my arguments by charging me with a crime.

“Their only task is to punish, to prove someone’s guilt and convict them. The merest formal excuse is enough to drag someone into the grindstone of the legal system,” I wrote.

I did not condone terrorism. I analyzed the causes of the attack. I tried to understand why a young man who had his whole life ahead of him decided to commit a crime and kill himself. Perhaps my reconstruction of his motives was mistaken. I would be glad to be mistaken, but no one has proven I was. It is rather primitive and crude to charge someone with a crime rather than engaging in a discussion. It is like punching someone in the face for something they said.

It is a punch in the face of every journalist in our country.

It is impossible to know in advance what words in what order will tick off the strongmen. They have labeled the opinion I voiced a crime. They have turned someone who was just doing her job into a criminal.

Using the same rationale, you can cook up a criminal case based on any more or less critical text. You merely need to find so-called experts who will sign an “expert opinion” for police investigators. If you know this can happen, will you tackle thorny subjects as a journalist? Will you ask questions that are certain to irritate the authorities? Will you accuse high-ranking officials of crimes?

The criminal case against me is an attempt to murder free speech. Remembering how the authorities made an example of me, dozens and hundreds of other journalists will not dare tell the truth when it needs to be told.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Safe Internet League

runet turtle.jpg

Miracles of OSINT
Telegram
August 12, 2019

“Senator” Andrei Klimov’s attack on YouTube—he claimed the video hosting service had been used to provide protesters on Sakharov Avenue with far-out guns and tell them to storm the Kremlin—might not have been mere psychosis on the part of yet another Russian elder in high places.

Through his so-called Interdisciplinary Institute for Regional Studies, Klimov is an official partner of Russian Orthodox businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, founder of the Safe Internet League.

Klimov’s institute and Malofeyev’s think thank Katehon are co-founders of Eurasian Dialogue.

“Today we have arrived at the law ‘On the Sovereign Internet’ in Russia precisely because the United States did not let us take part in regulating [the internet]. We have been forced to incur financial losses in order to create a parallel, mobilizing Runet,” Malofeyev has said, for example.

But Malofeyev, who fancies flashy, expensive suits with handkerchiefs sticking out of the pockets, is also not just obsessed with conservatism for nothing. He is close to former communication minister Igor Shchegolev, who has always been regarded as the FSB’s voice regarding internet regulation.

No wonder Roskomnadzor immediately launched an inquiry into whether Klimov’s cyberpunk dreams were true.

Image courtesy of Cropas. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Safe Internet League to attend China’s Internet Security Conference
Safe Internet League
August 15, 2016

[The] Internet Security Conference, due to open on August 16, 2016, in Beijing, China, is set to welcome head of [the] Safe Internet League Denis Davydov as one of its keynote speakers.

[The] ISC is one of the largest and most representative Asian-Pacific industry conferences on cybersecurity. First held in 2013 by the Cybersecurity Association of China and the 360 Internet Security Centre, the event enjoys the support of the nation’s Cyberspace Administration, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and Ministry of Public Security. The 2016 conference will discuss [the] trends and prospects of the international cybersecurity industry. Expected to attend the event are more than 30 000 specialists from all over the globe and 150 representatives of cybersecurity firms. Delivering keynote speeches will be John McAfee, founder of the company behind McAfee AntiVirus and a 2016 US presidential candidate; Wu Hequan, member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering; Zhou Hongyi, founder of Qihoo 360, the world’s largest antivirus company; John Davis, vice president of the network security solutions company Palo Alto Networks (USA); and Chu Chengyun, Director of Cyber Security Strategy at Microsoft (USA), and others.

“It is a great honor to be representing Russia at an event of such importance. The international community is currently in search of a new model of Internet governance, one based on a civilized approach, transparency, respect for and preservation of the sovereignty of nation-states, and the inadmissibility of unilateral control by any single country (which is, in fact, [has] continu[ed] to be the case). I am sure the Beijing meeting [will] help us make progress on this issue,” Mr. Davydov said prior to the conference.

Always Open for You

always for you

It is important, I guess, to make note of the Putin regime’s now innumerable crimes at home and abroad, although it is practically pointless.

At home, in Russia, the progressive intelligentsia is more interested in debating meaningless “issues” like the virtues or, alternately, the vices of Greta Thunberg than it is in doing much of anything about the regime that has happily trampled all of its real and imagined opponents and enemies scot-free for twenty years while also destroying the rule of law, the welfare state, the education system, medical care, the environment, etc., and, just for fun, has also brutally put down a rebellion in Russia’s hinterlands (Chechnya), invaded three countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Syria), assassinated numerous “enemies” on foreign soil, and recklessly meddled in the domestic affairs and elections of numerous other countries all over the world.

But who cares? My experience of writing about these things for twelve years is that most people (including most people in Russia itself, bizarrely) are keen to give the Putin regime a free pass whenever possible, meaning it has only gained more confidence in the “justice” of its perverted cause over the years.

What is this cause? Ensuring that Putin and his circle remain in power in perpetuity and thus, in control, of the country’s vast wealth, which they dispense of as if it were their personal property.

Public indifference has been most depressingly on display when it comes to Russia’s decisive and murderous military intervention, launched four years ago, in defense of Bashar Assad’s criminal regime in Syria.

Frankly, I have no clue why Russians would need unfettered access to the World Wide Web when they signally have failed to make any noise or, as far as I can tell, even find out anything about their government’s baleful role in the world today.

In fact, if they think about it at all, I imagine they kind of like it. It makes them feel important. [TRR]

Thanks to Harald Etzbach and Boycott Russia Today for the heads-up. Thanks also to Sheen Gleeson for her abiding support. Photo by the Russian Reader

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Putin Begins Installing Equipment To Cut Russia’s Access To World Wide Web
Zak Doffman
Forbes
September 24, 2019

Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Russian Internet (Runet) [sic] into law to protect the country’s communications infrastructure in case it was disconnected from the World Wide Web—or so he said. Critics argued it was opening a door to a Chinese-style firewall disconnecting Russia from the outside world.

Now, Alexander Zharov, the head of the federal communications regulator Roskomnadzor, has confirmed to reporters that “equipment is being installed on the networks of major telecom operators,” and Runet [sic] would begin testing by early October. Such testing, reporters were told, is known as “combat mode.”

When the legislation was introduced there was some debate as to whether it would work in practice. The government claimed its objective was to deal with “threats to the stable, safe and integral operation of the Russian Internet on Russian territory,” by centralizing “the general communications network.” This would work by deploying an alternative domain name system (DNS) for Russia to steer its web traffic away from international servers. ISPs are mandated to comply.

The Moscow Times reported at the time that “Russia carried out drills in mid-2014 to test the country’s response to the possibility of its internet being disconnected from the web—the secret tests reportedly showed that isolating the Russian internet is possible, but that ‘everything’ would go back online within 30 minutes.”

As for this “combat testing,” Zharov has assured [sic] that everything would be done “carefully,” according to local media reports, explaining that “we will first conduct a technical check—affects traffic, does not affect traffic, do all services work.” The plan is for all of this testing to be completed by the end of October.

Although the regulator has been keen to emphasize that Runet [sic] is only for deployment when the system is perceived to be “in danger,” there is a clear question as to where and how such a decision would be taken. Such threats have been classified as “impacts to the integrity of networks, the stability of networks, natural or man-made impacts, or security threats,” all pretty wide-ranging classifiers.

Russia’s recent moves to shut down cellular data traffic to stymie anti-Putin protesters and government warnings that social media access may be curtailed have not brought much confidence to its tech-savvy citizens.

Runet [sic] is due to go live in November. According to Freedom On The Net, “Russian internet freedom has declined for the sixth year in a row, following government efforts to block the popular messaging app Telegram and numerous legislative proposals aimed at restricting online anonymity and increasing censorship.”

And there are no signs of that getting any better any time soon.

NB. “Runet” is a term that has long been used to denote the Russian or Russian-language segment of the Internet. Why Mr. Doffman thought it was something that would go online only in November or was “signed into law” is beyond me. But then I also do not understand why a respectable magazine like Forbes would not only fail to fact-check his article but also neglect to proofread it. I had to do the proofreading for them. [TRR]

Five Years in Prison for a Tweet

sinitsa in dockVladislav Sinitsa in the cage during his custody hearing on August 5. Photo courtesy of Mediazona

Court Sentences Vladislav Sinitsa to Five Years in Prison for Tweet about Children of Security Forces Officers
Mediazona
September 3, 2019

Moscow’s Presna District Court has sentenced Vladislav Sinitsa, a financial manager from the Moscow Region, to five years in a medium-security penal colony for a tweet about the children of security forces officers, reports the Moscow News Agency.

Judge Elena Abramova found Sinitsa guilty of inciting hatred with the threat of violence (punishable under Article 282.2.a of the Russian Criminal Code). The prosecutor had asked her to sentence Sinitsa to six years in prison.

The court handed down the verdict on the second day of the trial per se.

The court questioned two witnesses: Russian National Guardsmen Alexander Andreyev and Artyom Tarasov, who, allegedly, saw Sinitsa’s tweet.

Andreyev said he regarded the tweet as a call to “kidnap the children of National Guardsmen and slaughter them.” However, he was unable to tell the court his own username on Twitter. He claimed he saw the tweet after searching for “Max Steklov,” which is Sinitsa’s username.

Tarasov also said he took the tweet as a threat.

After the witnesses were questioned, the prosecutor summarized the two volumes of the case file, including the findings of forensic experts from the Center for Socio-Cultural Forensic Testing [sic]. They found evidence in the tweet of calls for violent action against the security forces, and signs of threats and incitement of hatred towards them.

It has transpired that the people who performed the forensic examination for the prosecution had no specialized education in the field.

In turn, the defense questioned forensic experts who had examined Sinitsa’s tweets at its request: Elena Novozhilova, a linguist from the nonprofit Independent Forensic Testing Center, and Maria Kulikova, an analyst with the Center for Forensic Examination and Research.

Kulikova harshly criticized the forensic examination commissioned by the prosecution. Both experts spoke of its poor quality.

Mediazona has written at length abut the criminal case against Sinitsa.

On July 31, Sinitsa supplied his own answer to the question of whether it was a good idea to publish the identities of security forces officers in a tweet published under the username “Max Steklov.”

The tweet was quoted on national TV channels.

Later, on August 3, the Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal investigation. Two days later, the Presna District Court remanded Sinitsa in custody.

Sinitsa has insisted he was not calling on anyone to do anything but had implied popular unrest could arise if the security forces continued beating protesters.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ilya Yashin: Life in a Russian Jail

yashinIlya Yashin. Photo courtesy of his Facebook page

Ilya Yashin Rearrested After Three Stints in Jail
Radio Svoboda
August 18, 2019

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin was rearrested on Sunday after he left the special detention center in Moscow where he had been jailed for an administrative offense. He posted a video of his arrest on his Twitter account.

In the video, a police officer tells Yashin he has been detained “for encouraging [people to attend] ‘unauthorized’ protest rallies on July 18 and 19.” Apparently, he meant the gatherings on Trubnaya Square in support of the independent candidates attempting to stand in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma. Unlike the protest rallies on July 27 and August 3, the July 18 and 19 rallies were not dispersed by police.

Over the last month, Yashin has been jailed three times after being charged and convicted of various administrative offenses having to do with “unauthorized” grassroots rallies. He had been in jail since July 29.

One of the unregistered candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections, Yashin took part in a series of protest rallies against the Moscow City Elections Commission’s refusal to put independent candidates on the ballot and encouraged people to attend the protests.

Earlier, Konstantin Yankauskas and Yulia Galyamina, also unregistered independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma, were similarly detained immediately after leaving jail and sentenced to new terms in police custody. A court had also ordered Ivan Zhdanov’s rearrest, but when he left the special detention center, no police escort was waiting for him. Consequently, he went home.

Ilya Yashin
Facebook

August 17, 2019

The police brass is quite unhappy. How did it happen I was jailed and locked in a cell but things I wrote were posted on social media and I was quoted in the media? The brass does not get that you can send a text to the outside world with a lawyer. The brass imagines it is surrounded by treachery and betrayal.

What if there were supporters of the opposition in the police? Maybe they were providing me with access to the internet? After my letter to [Russian Central Elections Commission Chair] Ella Pamfilova was published, clearly paranoid new rules were issued at the special detention center.

The fact is that prisoners have the right to use their own telephones fifteen minutes a day. They cannot be used to access the internet or send texts, only to make calls. Until recently, the wardens were not very strict about enforcing this rule. But now there were new orders.

In order for me to make a call, the special detention center’s warden personally escorts me every day from my cell to his office, where he keeps my telephone locked in a safe, separate from all the other phones. He sits down at his desk, hands me the phone, and sets his stopwatch to fifteen minutes: the rules are strictly followed. Simultaneously, the duty officer stands opposite me brandishing a video recorder on his chest. I am thus able to convey my greetings to the Interior Ministry’s head office in Moscow.

I wave to the camera and say, “Hey, boss!” like [Yuri] Shevchuk [in the 1992 DDT song “Motherland”].

The boss smiles.

The Detention Center
They say you are curious about how things are organized here in jail. It’s really interesting, huh? Let me tell you about it.

The cell where I have lived for the past three weeks is seven meters by four meters large. There are three cots lined up in a row, a small wooden table, and a bench. There are double bars on the window.

The bathroom—a washbasin and a hole in the floor used as a toilet—is in the corner. When Nemtsov was jailed for the first time, he offered the warden to pay for making conditions in the jail more humane and, at least, install toilets.

“It won’t work, Boris Yefimovich,” the warden replied. “The leadership values things like corruption.”

The most disgusting thing is that the bathroom is not at all shielded from the living space. Prisoners usually hang a sheet around it to fence off the space.

Meals are served in the cafeteria, where prisoners who have agreed to work in the kitchen hand out food in plastic containers. In return, they get informal perks such as more telephone time and more frequent showers.

There is an exercise yard in the special detention center, a small space fenced off with concrete slabs and decorated with barbed wire. It is covered from above by bars.

And, of course, all the rooms are equipped with video cameras. Your every move is broadcast to monitors in the duty room. A prisoner’s entire everyday life is a reality show.

Conditions
Between seven and eight in the morning, the metal door wakes you up with an unpleasant creak. The duty officer comes into the cell and orders you to get up. The inmates trudge to the cafeteria, where they get their rations of porridge.

Accompanied by his entourage, the warden inspects ten cells or so. This is the morning inspection, during which personal belongings are searched. Then groups of prisoners are taken to make phone calls and exercise in the yard, which lasts for no more than an hour a day.

Lunch is followed by free time, dinner, and lights out. During the day, you are allowed to read, write, and listen to the radio. TV sets are not allowed in the cells, unlike remand prisons for people charged with criminal offenses. Backgammon and checkers are available to the inmates, however.

You also have the right to see your loved ones. It does not matter, though, how many days you have been sentenced to jail. Whether you are in for five days or thirty days, you get only one visit and it lasts no more than an hour. So, I have been luckier than Navalny and [VladimirMilov, whom the court immediately sentenced to thirty days in jail. I have been sentenced to ten days at a time, and each new sentence comes with another family visit. Not bad, right?

On Sundays, the prisoners take showers. You wonder why this happens so infrequently? No one will tell you why. It is the way things are. One of the guys asked a police officer whether the special detention center had a separate shower for staff.

“Of course,” the sergeant said, surprised. “We are on duty for three days straight. You think we are going to go home dirty after our shifts? Are we not human beings or what?”

What about us? Are we not human beings?

Daily Life
When you are admitted to the special detention center, they confiscate all the “extras,” including your shoelaces, belt, and chains. The idea is that these items could be dangerous to you and your cellmates.

Care packages containing food, cigarettes, books, and newspapers are allowed. But the guards give food items a good shakedown. Candy must be removed from wrappers, while fruit and bread are poked with a knife. What are they looking for? A nail file that you will use to make your escape? It’s a mystery. Packages of sliced meat and cheese are opened.

The way they inspect newspapers and magazines is the funniest thing. If the duty officer notices any marks and underlining, he refuses to let the periodical through.

“The brass thinks encrypted messages can be sent this way,” said an officer, shrugging.

I thought was he was joking, but I was wrong.

Experienced inmates know how to make tea in the cells and share their skills with the newbies. They use big five-liter mineral water bottles. During trips to the cafeteria, they hand them over to the chow servers, who fill them with boiling water. The bottles shrink but they generally retain their shape. Back in the cells, the bottles are wrapped in blankets and stuffed in plastic bags. You end up with a homemade thermos that keeps the water piping hot for a fairly long time.

***

Oleg Stepanov, the coordinator of Navalny’s Moscow campaign headquarters, lies in the cot next to mine reading the autobiographies of early twentieth-century Russian revolutionaries.

He laughs.

“Listen to this,” he says, reading an excerpt aloud.

“I immediately liked the prison. Everything there was businesslike, as befitted the capital. We were led to our cell. The comrade marching next to me was merry as if he were going to a welcome occasion. He elbowed me and wondered whether we would be put in the same cell.  We were put in a common cell with two fellow Socialist Revolutionaries we knew. It resembled a student party more than a prison. There were books, notebooks in which we recorded our thoughts, slices of sausage laid out on a wooden table, mugs of tea, laughter, jokes, discussions, and games of chess.”

Nemtsov was right. In Russia, you have to live a long time for something to happen.

Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for posting the second text. Translated by the Russian Reader

Steven Salaita: The Inhumanity of Academic Freedom

team-22

“The Inhumanity of Academic Freedom,” a lecture Steven Salaita gave the day before yesterday at the University of Cape Town, is so powerful and echoes so many of the depressing things I have gone through as an agitator and (former) academic in the past several years that I would like to quote it here in full, but I’ll limit myself to quoting a single passage. Please read the lecture from beginning to end: it’s more than worth it. Salaita is a rare truthteller in a fallen world that fancies itself chockablock with truthtellers but which is actually pullulating with hasbaristas of various stripes. Thanks to George Ciccariello-Maher for the heads-up. Thanks to the Imatra IPV Reds Finnish baseball club for the image. (If you think it has nothing to do with the lecture, it means you haven’t read the whole thing.) // TRR

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In the end, we have to apply value judgments (mediated by lawless forces) to balance speech rights with public safety. In societies like the USA and South Africa, steeped in the afterlives of colonization, this task is remarkably difficult. We know that racism is bad, but global economic systems are invested in its survival. We know that anti-Zionism isn’t racism, that, in fact, it is the just position.  Yet no agreement exists about what comprises appropriate speech, in large part because maintaining a community is at odds with corporate dominion. As a result, there’s no way to prioritize a set of beliefs without accusations of hypocrisy (or without actual hypocrisy). The easy answer is to protect speech equally and let a marketplace of ideas sort the winners and losers. 

There’s a catch, though. Value judgments don’t arise in a vacuum and discourses don’t exist in a free market. Structural forces, often unseen, always beneficial to the elite, determine which ideas are serious and which in turn get a hearing. If we conceptualize speech as a market-driven phenomenon, then we necessarily relinquish concern for the vulnerable. We’re left with competing narratives in a system designed to favor the needs of capital. It’s a highly lopsided competition. Those who humor the ruling class will always enjoy a strong advantage, which aspiring pundits and prospective academics are happy to exploit. Corporate and state-run media don’t exist to ratify disinterest, but to reproduce status quos. 

The political left is already restricted, on and beyond campus. The same notions of respectability or common sense that guide discussion of academic freedom also limit the imagination to the mechanical defense of abstractions. Sure, academic freedom is meant to protect insurgent politics, and often does, but the milieu in which it operates has plenty of ways to neutralize or quash insurgency.  

I focus on radical ideas because Palestine, one of my interests and the source of my persecution, belongs to the set of issues considered dangerous by polite society, at least in North America and much of Europe (and, for that matter, the Arab World). Others include Black liberation, Indigenous nationalism, open borders, decolonization, trans-inclusivity, labor militancy, communism, radical ecology, and anti-imperialism. Certain forms of speech reliably cause people trouble: condemning the police, questioning patriotism, disparaging whiteness, promoting economic redistribution, impeaching the military—anything, really, that conceptualizes racism or inequality as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing. More than anything, denouncing Israeli aggression has a long record of provoking recrimination. Anti-Zionism has always existed in dialogue with revolutionary politics around the globe, including the long struggle against Apartheid.