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. 

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Mind What You Post Online, or You’ll Be Sent to the Loony Bin

watchingThey’re watching your every word.

Police Investigators Request Compulsory Psychiatry Treatment for Joke on VK Social Network
OVD Info
20 August 2018

Police investigators in Petersburg have asked a court to commit Eduard Nikitin, a disabled man charged with arousing enmity by posting a joke on the VK social network, to compulsory psychiatric treatment, writes Interfax news agency.

Petersburg’s Nevsky District Court is currently hearing the case in closed chambers.

The charges against Nikitin were filed in 2017. He was accused of violating Article 282 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code for posting a caricature and joke on his personal page on the VK (Vkontakte) social network in 2015.

“He was given a psychiatric evaluation. Police investigators have asked the court not to criminally prosecute him, but to have him committed to compulsory treatment,” Maxim Kamakin, the accused man’s attorney, explained to Interfax.

Forensic examiners discovered “extremism” in a joke in which a character doubts the positive changes after an election, as well as in the use of the word vatnik in a caricature.

“This is the first time I have heard of charges like this being filed for a joke, albeit not the most decent joke and a political one to boot,” Kamakin added.

Nikitin said he was summoned by police investigators as part of an enquiry in 2016. Subsequently, the investigators did not contact him for over a year. In late 2017, however, Nikitin received notification of criminal proceedings.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Where Is Ildar Dadin?

"Where is Dadin?" Photo courtesy of Gradus TV
“Where is Dadin?” Photo courtesy of Gradus TV

Activists Picketing in Support of Ildar Dadin Detained in Moscow
RBC
January 4, 2016

Police in Moscow detained six activists [Pavel Kuznetsov, Mikhail Lashkevich, Leonid Dubrovo, Tatyana Tarvid, Elena Zakharova, and Maria Ryabikova — TRR] who had been holding solo pickets in support of Ildar Dadin, according to OVD Info.

The activists had been picketing on Zhitnaya Street, where the Federal Penitentiary Service and Justice Ministry are located. Several of the picketers held placards that read, “Where is Dadin?”

The detainees were taken to Yakimanka police precinct.

Later, activist Sergei Ozhich reported on his Facebook page that all six detainees had been released. They have been charged with misdemeanors under Article 20.2.5 of the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code (violation of the established rules for holding assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets by a participant of a public event).

In early November 2016, Dadin wrote in a letter that he had been severely beaten and threatened by the staff at the penal colony where he was imprisoned. The Federal Penitentiary Service, the Investigative Committee, the Presidential Human Rights Council, and civil rights activists took an interest in his case.

Members of the Presidential Human Rights Council recommended that the Federal Penitentiary Service transfer Dadin to another penal colony. In early December, he was transferred to another colony. Anastasia Zotova, Dadin’s wife, filed an inquiry with the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Karelian Directorate asking about his whereabouts. His whereabouts are still unknown, however. By law, the inmate should have informed a relative of his whereabouts within ten days.

Dadin is serving a sentence for violating the law on [“unauthorized” political] rallies. In December [2015], he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but a court later reduced the sentence to two and and half years. Dadin was the first person sentenced to an actual prison sentence under the new law.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The People versus the Package

"I think therefore I'm a terrorist." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016
“I think therefore I’m a terrorist.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

Varya Mikhaylova
Facebook
July 23, 2016

It doesn’t matter whether you come to the people’s assembly against the so-called Yarovaya package at 7 p.m. on July 26 in front of the arch of the General Staff Building on Bolshaya Morskaya or not. There is already enough evidence to put you away.

***

On July 7, 2016, President Putin signed the so-called Yarovaya package, a series of flagrantly repressive amendments to the Russian Federal Criminal Code. The official objective of the amendments is to combat terrorism.

IF YOU DON’T INFORM YOU’LL GO TO JAIL
An article on non-informing has been added to the Criminal Code. “Failure to report a crime” will entail a sentence of up to one year in prison. This law applies to such crimes as terrorism, seizure of power, and attempts on the life of a public official.

ALL YOUR COMMUNICATIONS WILL BE SAVED AND READ
Monitoring of correspondence has been toughened. Records of all your telephone calls, SMS messages, and emails will be saved for six months, and the security forces will be provided with the means to decode encrypted communications.

"Words don't make me a criminal." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016
“Words don’t make me a criminal.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

YOUR PACKAGES WILL BE VETTED
Postal workers will now be obliged to search vigorously for prohibited items in our packages: money, narcotics, weapons, explosives, and “other devices that pose a threat to human life and health.”

YOU INVITED A FRIEND TO A PROTEST RALLY, YOU GO TO JAIL
The Criminal Code will now include an article on “inducing, recruiting or otherwise involving” someone in organizing a “riot.” The law stipulates a penalty of 300,000 to 700,000 rubles or a prison sentence of five to ten years.

YOU REPOST THE “WRONG” THING, YOU GO TO JAIL
The punishments for “extremist” entries, reposts, and comments on the web have been toughened. Despite the fact that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, you can now be fined from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles or sent to prison for two to five years for making certain statements. By the way, 369 people were convicted of “enciting hatred by means of the Internet” in 2015.

YOU’RE STILL A KID? YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL ANYWAY
14-year-olds will now be tried as adults not only for serious crimes but also for involvement in riots and non-informing.

At 7 p.m. on July 26, a people’s assembly on behalf of liberty and against the Yarovaya package will be held on Bolshaya Morskaya in the pedestrian area near the arch of the General Staff Building. The people’s assembly format does not permit the use of political symbols and placards. But no one can forbid us from going outside, talking about the Yarovaya package, and hoping the voice of peaceful protest will be heard.

More on the Yarovaya Package:

"Inform on me and maybe  you won't go to jail." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg,  July 22, 2016
“Inform on me and maybe you won’t go to jail.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

The Package

"My grandfather was imprisoned for a joke, while I'll go to jail for a repost."
“My grandfather was imprisoned for a joke, while I’ll be going to jail for a repost.”

Varya Mikhaylova
Facebook
June 24, 2016

As you know, the so-called Yarovaya package, a series of flagrantly repressive amendments to the Russian Federal Criminal Code, whose official aim is combating terrorism, was passed today by the State Duma in its third and final reading.

You can read here why this is bad:


Aleksandra Ermilova and I summarized the worst things about these amendments and went to Nevsky Prospect to hand out leaflets. Or rather, I handed out the leaflets, while Sasha stood holding a remarkable autobiographical placard [pictured, above].

This is what we wrote in the leaflets:

IF YOU DON’T INFORM YOU’LL GO TO JAIL
An article on non-informing has been added to the Criminal Code. “Failure to report a crime” will entail a sentence of up to one year in prison. This law applies to such crimes as terrorism, seizure of power, and attempts on the life of a public official.

ALL YOUR COMMUNICATIONS WILL BE SAVED AND READ
Monitoring of correspondence has been toughened. Records of all your telephone calls, SMS messages, and emails will be saved for six months, and the security forces will be provided with the means to decode encrypted communications.

YOUR PACKAGES WILL BE VETTED
Postal workers will now be obliged to search vigorously for prohibited items in our packages: money, narcotics, weapons, explosives, and “other devices that pose a threat to human life and health.”

YOU INVITED A FRIEND TO A PROTEST RALLY, YOU GO TO JAIL
The Criminal Code will now include an article on “inducing, recruiting or otherwise involving” someone in organizing a “riot.” The law stipulates a penalty of 300,000 to 700,000 rubles or a prison sentence of five to ten years.

YOU REPOST THE “WRONG” THING, YOU GO TO JAIL
The punishments for “extremist” entries, reposts, and comments on the web have been toughened. Despite the fact that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, you can now be fined from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles or sent to prison for two to five years for making certain statements. By the way, 369 people were convicted of “enciting hatred by means of the Internet” in 2015.

YOU’RE STILL A KID? YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL ANYWAY
14-year-olds will now be tried as adults not only for serious crimes but also for involvement in riots and non-informing.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Darja Serenko’s Quiet Picket

Picketing the Everyday
Marina Simakova
OpenLeft.ru
May 7, 2016

Quiet Picket, a recent initiative by Darja Serenko, teeters on the verge of artistic intervention and protest action. Every day, Serenko boards public transport (often, the subway) bearing a new placard inscribed with an extensive message. Its purpose is to invite people to engage in a discussion. Serenko thus explores the space of communication itself: the distance between placard and recipient, and how potential interlocutors navigate the distance. So far she has produced fifty-four placards, gone through six markers, and directly communicated with ninety-three people. Marina Simakova spoke with Serenko about the background of the action and its effects.

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Darja Serenko: “I want to carry it myself.”

Tell us how and under what circumstances the idea for the action occurred to you. What was the occasion?

The action grows out of several occasions. On the one hand, the arrest of Ildar Dadin; on the other, the story with the itinerant exhibition {NE MIR}, when we artists were detained by police while carrying our artworks down the street. I had been contemplating a solo picket for quite a long time. I had a dream of doing an ordinary picket, holding a placard at chest level that would resemble the headings in children’s encyclopedias: “And did you know that…” But ultimately a kind of reformatting of the very principle happened in my head. My understanding of it changed.

And what defined its format?

I was riding the subway after the closing of a {NE MIR} exhibition. I had grabbed a small poster by the Lights of Eirene movement. It featured the famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Bed-In for Peace, and next to it, a current photograph in which similar looking people were lying in approximately the same poses. I was carrying the poster unfolded so it would not be crumpled, and I noticed that everyone in the subway car was looking at it. It dawned on me then and there this was the perfect form of communication. It was completely unobtrusive.

Why did you decide to do it alone, without friends? Did you ask anyone else to join you?

I said from the get-go that the format was open. Two young women joined me, but each has changed the format to suit her. One of them, Sasha, joined about ten days ago. She has attached a placard to her backpack (it comes out more static), and she has been traveling with the same placard for a week. On the other hand, she usually prints it out, and it contains references. The second young woman, Valeria, has also been doing a quiet picket on public transport. She wrote me to ask my permission, and of course I agreed. I have asked the young women to share photos of their placards and stories about what happened as they are able. In no way do I want my action to smack of a manifestation where “I, the performance artist, march forth and educate people.” That is not how it is. Although I do conceive of it as an educational project.

So your action could go viral?

It is difficult to talk about a virus when there are only three young women. But this format really is networked, simple, and palatable. It also functions without me.

How has it been documented?

On VKontakte and Facebook, and a bit on Instagram.  I have a small public page on Vkontakte, and I post a written report on my personal page on Facebook every afternoon or evening, when I have a free minute. I try and describe the situations, the conversations, and the behavior, both my own and that of the people with whom I interact. I also post photographs of the placards.

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“#quietpicket is when you feel discouraged and your arms fall.” In Russian, the expression “[one’s] arms fall” means to “feel discouraged.”

And is someone watching and photographing you?

Yes, constantly. Stealthily, very politely. If people photograph at close range, they always ask my  permission. Actually, I have got used to thinking of my action as a tape. Today, something like two hundred people wrote me asking what the action was all about. They had not been following it, and I already find it hard to conceive it any other way and explain it all in a jiffy, because some things were improvised and then they caught on. The format of the action has been changing.

How has it changed?

Initially, I had planned to make a placard early in the morning or the night before, ride around with it for a day, and make a new one the next day. I could not imagine subsequent interventions into the placard. But then I sensed the need to alter it depending on the reactions, to write and draw something extra, to explain something on the back. First, the placards were one-sided, then they became two-sided, and then I started doing several narratives within a placard.

After hearing why I was doing this, one of my accidental interlocutors said, “Oh, I get it. You are making a social alphabet.”

Yes, you could say that as well, and so the alphabet format emerged in my action. I want to put together an entire alphabet. Yesterday, I traveled with Г, for gomoseksual’nost’ [homosexuality], and today it was Ш, for shovinizm [chauvinism].

There is also a storyline involving poems I write on the placards. They can be connected with the topic of the placard, as stated on the other side, or they might not be connected. For example, I have been riding around with texts by the poets of the Lianozovo School, the poems of Vsevolod Nekrasov and Igor Holin, and I have been telling people about poetry. And when people ask me whether I think they are poems, I say that of course they are.

Sometimes, the text on a placard is arranged like a dialogue. There is an enquirer of sorts and a respondent.  There was a photo stand-in placard with holes for the eyes and mouth on which I wrote about the social status of women. The allegory in this case was simple: almost any face could be placed on the placard. But, actually, each placard turns out different from the others.

The last few days I have been stitching the sheets of paper together with thread, because I have run out of tape. (I use A3 sheets, which I combine into one big sheet.) It is an excellent means of representing a placard, because while I am stitching it together, I can turn it over and still remain focused on some task.

Sometimes, I also sew a new placard to an old one. This is a palimpsest placard, and the one is visible through the other. The placards thus form strange seams and montages.

I now always have a pile of posters in my bag.  If I see a person is reacting to the placard I am holding, and realize that I want to say something to them, I take another placard from my bag and sew it to the first. When I was riding around with the placard “Our government is fabricating [in Russian, “stitching up”] yet another case against yet another political prisoner,” I sewed it as well I could, in several rows, with rough stitches. By the way, I have been stitching the alphabet placards into a single notebook so later you can flip through it.

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Darja Serenko, Photo Stand-in Placard on Social Status of Women (Quiet Picket), 2016

How do you think up the texts for the placards? Do you take advantage of items in the news?

Everything is unstable when it comes to this, too. For May Day I made a topical placard, and after Pavlensky’s action [when the artist summoned sex workers to his court hearing as witnesses—OpenLeft] I made a placard about prostitution. But there are issues I simply have to cover, so I conceive of Quiet Picket as an educational project, albeit semi-ironically and semi-seriously.  Although it happens that I see my action as a kind of monstration. I ride in the subway, look at people, and think I would like to cheer them up.

Besides the fact that the project is educational, how do you define it for yourself? As a series of political art performances or as a civic initiative?

I see it as a continuation of my own work as a poet. In the poetry I have been doing, I spent a long time trying to achieve some kind of interaction: I took readymades and inserted them into poems. I think this know-how has influenced Quiet Picket. I am not saying that Picket is a purely poetic endeavor, but thanks to poetry the placard itself has greater opportunities for communicating. And the aspect I cannot keep track of in poetry, the aspect of reading [meaning the reader and her interaction with the poetic text—OpenLeft] is a process I can observe in this case. I see the person’s eyes running over the text, and at the same time she can address me, while I observe how her interpretative mechanisms function, and I can influence them. Quiet Picket takes place in this gap, in the distance between the person and the placard.

Have you thought about urban studies? After all, your action is nothing less than an intervention in one of the most important urban infrastructural spaces, an intervention that would let you get a feel for certain problems, study the behavior of passengers, do work on communications, and so on.

I might prove insufficiently competent as a researcher in this field. I have been trying to document everything I do, and perhaps the outcome will be an article or essay I write. I have not drawn any conclusions for the time being. My research involves collecting information and gaining the know-how of conversing with people on pointed topics that many of them find painful.

There is a rather glaring contradiction in your action. On the one hand, it lays claim to a certain intimacy. It summons a man in the crowd to have a private conversation; it invites him to a politicized discussion. On the other hand, it is very public and open to multiple counter-statements. Could you comment on this?

I don’t see a contradiction here. The fact is that the star of my action is the person who has brought herself to engage in reciprocal communication. She is the master of the situation, not me. She defines her own borders. She can approach me and whisper something in my ear, or she can holler at me from the other end of the subway car, aware that everyone will hear her and thus let other people get involved. It has also happened that a person has asked me to exit the car and have a chat. In that case, I obediently go with him and talk.

serenko-4
Darja Serenko in the midst of Quiet Picket on the Moscow subway

If we shift the focus from the action itself to its subject, meaning you, we can detect yet another problem. At first glance, you appear as a naïve angel in this action. Eyes downcast, silently but persistently, you broadcast your appeal to people. Prepared for any reaction, you throw yourself at the mercy of angry, tired subway passengers. There is a certain victimhood about all this, almost evoking associations with the holy apostles. At the same time, we can look at you in a different way, as an artist working in the aftermath of Situationism and rationally exploiting the temporal distance. So you are protected from the man in the crowd by theory and your own stance, which have found their own places on your placards, while your potential interlocutor, the so-called man in the street, simply has nothing to oppose to you. You thus possess a certain power from the outset.

First, the image of me as meek silent angel is not true. It has been conjured from a photograph of me that has become quite popular. Usually, I don’t look that way. Second, yes, I have a background in culture, a knowledge of manipulative devices, and a set of readymade arguments. There is no getting away from it, but in the process of communicating I still feel unarmed and naked. The things people say, their experience, and the situations they reference have often stumped me. It has happened that I have nothing ready to say to them.

You assumed this experience would change you, pose new questions, and, perhaps, even force you to undergo a kind of metanoia.  Or am I wrong?

I haven’t had the time to keep track of what has been happening to me. But as a woman and feminist, I do think about my own feminine subjectivity (and objectivity). The placard is an amazing agent. When I use the placard to broadcast a feminist agenda, which I do quite often, I am simultaneously the subject and author of the placard and its object.  When I have to dialogue with someone on the topic, I have to act as a subject. So I balance between these points like a pendulum, and this affects me. Of course, I know about the experiments of artists whose bodies, including social bodies, have become sacrificial bodies. But I am faced primarily by the task of a cultural worker. I really wanted and still want to tell people about certain facts. It pains me these facts are hushed up, many people don’t have access to them, etc.

And why should people believe what you tell them? The legitimacy of your claim to know the facts is supported by what? Are you appealing to the status of cultural worker?

Since my format is encyclopedic, I appeal to sources. You will have noticed the references on my placards. People and I often google something: they verify the information on the Internet. I realize that the informational field is infinite, and for various reasons people often deal with only a fragment of this field. I offer them an alternative.

serenko-5
Darja Serenko, “This is how our government has been fabricating yet another case against yet another political prisoner” (Quiet Picket, 2016)

The action has been running for five weeks, and you certainly have managed to collect the most incredible textured. Could you tell us about the most memorable, unexpected or personally important incidents during the picket? I will phrase my question even more openly. Tell us about whatever you would like.

For example, an elderly woman read my placard about political prisoners and thanked me. We were sitting opposite each other in the subway, and she told me about her life. She was a medical worker who helped athletes recover after injuries. On the back of my poster was an old poster, the May Day poster, on which the phrase “Thank you for your hard work” had been written.  She then asked me to exit the subway with her and offered to reward me for my work by having a look at my back and spine.

How long are you planning to continue the action?

For a year. I have a palpable dream that one day I will hit on the right phrasing, the right interactive possibility, and a person will want to make a placard in response right in front of me—as a creative act, as a statement, as an expression of contempt for me or, on the contrary, out of a desire to express agreement or disagreement.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of OpenLeft.