Are We Going To Stand Up For Charlie?

 freespeech

Here’s an op-ed I’ve published today in EUobserver. I made the unfortunate mistake of sharing it on Facebook, and receiving a bunch of comments whose tone was (how shall I put it?) not exactly in the spirit of the topic. Anyways, here it is – hope it gives you food for thought:

What happened in Paris is much worse than “an assault on free speech”. It’s a red alert.

However great in number, the mainstream reactions to past week’s terrorist attacks could, so far, be boiled down to two narratives. Both start by acknowledging that the freedom of speech and expression has been brutally attacked. Then they diverge along the established paths of European left and right – one stressing the danger of radical Islam, the other warning against the possible surge of islamophobia. The overall focus remains on tolerance towards and within Muslim communities in Europe. Free speech itself is overlooked, and the “assault” that happened is seen as little more than a symbolic attack that merits the strongest symbolic response – a massive rally. In this, we are avoiding a question over which we absolutely need to ponder: namely, what do these terrorist attacks tell us about the state of free speech in Europe?

Many commentators have criticized the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, pointing out that “no, we’re not all Charlie Hebdo”. Sure, they’re right – most of us are biased in our criticism, and our humor is limited by our individual taboos. We don’t all need to be Charlie, as long as we allow a Charlie to exist among us. We can all quietly hiss at the distasteful satirist whose jokes have gone too far, as long as we treasure his tiny, but indispensable role in the liberal-democratic order. And, as such a “flame keeper” of free speech, Charlie is meant to exist on the margin, far from the political mainstream. So, the question to ask is not “why isn’t the mainstream more like Charlie Hebdo”, but – “why wasn’t the mainstream able to protect Charlie Hebdo”?

The Paris attacks should do more than to shock us with their barbarism. This is a chance for the political mainstream to reflect on whether it has lost sight of the values for which the victims stood. This is a moment to realize that the most basic of all our civil liberties – the freedom of speech – is in an alarmingly grave state. That the process of its degradation has been going on for decades. That, throughout this period, free speech has been attacked from all directions, and that the long-term danger of this continuous, systematic suppression of free speech is, as horrid as this may sound, even greater than that of an occasional armed lunatic.

Yes, the blame’s on all sides. Remember the post-9/11 frenzy and the mainstream media’s paranoid expurgation of “unpatriotic” criticism. The Catholic Church has, in recent times, often tried to censor “insulting” content. So did many other bastions of traditionalism. One barely needs to take a look at the Heads of State marching at the Paris rally to spot the immense hypocrisy of these supposed defenders of liberty in Russia, Turkey or Israel. That the freedom of expression has too many exploiters and too few admirers in all spheres of the establishment is not a new thing. But we’d be dishonest if we did not admit that, in the past few decades, the single most effective suppressant of liberty has come from the liberal left, through its obsession with political correctness.

Think of the prohibitive non-legal barriers imposed on those whose opinions are ever so slightly differ from the mainstream orthodoxy: their views are immediately branded as phobic or offensive by hypersensitive cultural minorities. Think of the general atmosphere that’s been created, in which publishers face restrictive pressures to censor a myriad of views that would have been commonplace as much as a decade ago. Think of the unreserved concessions to almost any group that screams disrespect, and the bureaucratic lines about the need to foster tolerance, “while recognizing the limitations of free speech”. Anyone who’s ever tried to publish views that in any way challenge the narrative of political correctness will know this experience – hitting the wall of acceptability, dreading if you’ve asked your question in a bad way, or whether it was bad to ask the question at all. That’s as effective as soft censorship gets.

Look at the growing levels of ideological narrowness in US campuses, or outright political discrimination or in Western academia, where holding conservative views may cost you your job. Recall, for instance, how even the prospect of a campus debate on abortion policy was offensive enough to a feminist student group, that the University administrators were forced to cancel it. Seeing that this happened, of all places, at the University of Oxford, shouldn’t we pay more attention to Alasdair Macintyre’s warnings that the Western public sphere has lost its capacity to have an argument about moral issues?

It’s not hard to see where this increased readiness to compromise our freedom of expression has gotten us – a society terrified of conflict, willing to make ever greater concessions to appease intolerant radicals and avoid unrest. A society that, over the years, prioritized almost any sort of comfort to the comfort of liberty, forgetting that all these blessings are themselves derived from it. Now even the threat of leaking Sony executives’ private emails is enough for a faraway nut to dictate what movies we will and won’t watch.

Does this seem like a society that’s got the spine to stand up for Charlie Hebdo before it is too late? That question has been answered in the bloodiest of ways. Shall we choose to ignore this predicament, hold a massive rally and focus on dealing with radical Islam? Or shall we pull ourselves together and start paying minimal respects to a piece of liberal-democratic heritage for which twelve people have paid with their lives?

Why We Need To Talk About Academic Corruption

No.1 Profil URL screenshot

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for Balkanist:

In societies where public opinion plays little part in political turns of events, the most onescandal can do is to afford the plebs a short-lived vent for outrage. It’s a bread-and-circuses pact, where the public is fed a regular dose of “civic concern” in exchange for keeping business as usual. Think of the past year’s moral panic about the homicide of children in Serbia, or the hype over the Albanian drone incident. Sadly, it seems as though the outcome of this summer’s wave of academic plagiarism scandals in Serbia will be as ineffectual – a few good jabs in televised debates, but no meaningful change in policy or practice.

Let’s recap: in June, a group of Serbian expat academics exposed the PhD of then-Speaker of the Parliament, Nebojša Stefanović, as a work of plagiarism. Doctorates of Mr. Stefanović’s mentor and Megatrend University President Mića Jovanović, Belgrade Major Siniša Mali and politicianAleksandar Šapić were also debunked as massive frauds. Expert commissions, formed to investigate the matter, backed the authenticity of Messrs. Stefanović and Mali’s works in short order. And yet, the publicly disclosed evidence was so overwhelming, and the copy-pasting so blatantly obvious, that the commissions’ conduct will go down in memory as a spectacular case of academic disgrace.

The hype soon spilled over to neighboring Montenegro: in September, it was revealed that Minister of Science, Sanja Vlahović, had plagiarized an academic paper from Prof. Dimitros Buhalis of Bournemouth University. Two thirds of a paper Madam Minister presented at an academic conference in 2010 turned out to be copied (almost verbatim) from a work Prof. Buhalis had published in 2000, without reference to the original. It was also discovered that, when applying for a tenured position at Mediteran University’s School of Tourism, Ms. Vlahović’s CV cited authorship of an article published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management. The said Journal issued a statement denying publication of any work authored by Ms. Vlahović. The pattern repeated itself – public calls were made for the Minister’s resignation – her official reaction was to shrug it off. Just like in the case of her two fellow scholars-in-power in Serbia, an expert commission was formed by Mediteran University to investigate the allegations, and (surprise) it found no grounds to launch a formal inquiry because “the exact practices that constitute plagiarism have not been defined either by the University’s governing Statutes or by the Law of Higher Education”. It’s hard to say whether this was the most gut twisting excuse of all made by commissions of the kind, but it sure does close a loop that starts with a Science Minister committing academic theft and a university that doesn’t have a way of authenticating academic works.

It would be a great shame if the public backlash generated by the latest of these high-profile scandals whimpered away with the next new juicy gaffe, as seems to be the case in Serbia. It is imperative we recognize that these instances are the tip of the iceberg – they shed light on a grave problem. One that permeates the two countries’ educational systems, labor markets and every societal echelon; one whose existence and scope our institutions have so far ignored, but about which a public conversation has to begin. We need to start talking about academic corruption, raising awareness of the issue and demanding that our judicial and educational institutions finally do something about it.

Almost every student coming from the ex-Yugoslav region has either heard about instances of buying term papers, bachelor’s theses, master’s theses or doctorates, or has had personal exposure to this practice. A staggering percentage of students buy academic works from specialized “producers” and submit them for a grade, a course credit or a degree. In Montenegro, there are online ads, Facebook profiles and even posters placed on entrances to university buildings that advertize the sale of academic works. Some of them even leave their phone number.

Curious about the black market of Montenegrin academia, I contacted some of these “producers” – they were very open about their line of work, giving interested parties bank account numbers on which to transfer required funds. For 15-25€, you’ll get a term paper, and at a price of 60-100€, a BA thesis will be drafted for you. A Master’s thesis will cost you a couple hundred Euros. It is enough for the customer to leave the desired paper topic and length, and the product will be sent to your inbox in as little as one week. If you’ve got a grand and a couple months to spare, you may even commission a doctorate.

The “producers” with whom I’ve talked sometimes work in teams. They’ve been selling academic works for years now, and we can only guess how many dozens of term papers, undergraduate degrees and graduate qualifications they have so far provided to incompetent young people who were ready to pay. Most, if not all, of these paid academic papers are themselves works of plagiarism, simply because the “producers” don’t have enough time to write a decent paper for their numerous customers. The practice in which these “producers” and their customers are participating is not only dishonorable and illegal: Since academic qualifications are the most relevant determinant of entrance in the labor force, the practice of “buying” grades and degrees is plainly dangerous.

Imagine a not-so-hypothetical case of a well-off Economics student who pays for every term paper in his undergraduate studies, buys a Master’s degree in Finance and pulls strings to land a job at the Central Bank of Montenegro. This utterly unknowledgeable bloke, having never done any academic research, gets to deal with interest rates and other vitally important bits of the country’s fiscal policy. Think of the hundreds of sons and daughters of the ruling elite who have bought their way out of university and instantaneously hired by the Government’s various ministries, agencies and municipal institutions – coupled with the partitocracy and nepotism that dominate the labor market, these young people’s lack of knowledge and competence poses a real and imminent threat to the management of the State’s affairs. If we don’t take urgent measures to stop and sanction the corruption that runs rampant in our educational systems, every level of our institutional system will soon be flooded with entitled idiots.

The judicial system of Montenegro hasn’t managed to bring a single criminal investigation, let alone an indictment for academic corruption yet. The total number of official reports of this crime made to the district attorney offices in the country is – one (filed by Yours Truly, nine months and seven days ago). As I write these lines, this lonely push for justice, the naiveté of whom had likely afforded the D.A. clerks a good day’s laugh, hasn’t moved past its initial post-instigation phase. It’s been shoved up on top of some shelf, safely cushioned in those endless, thorough-paced dodge tactics that bureaucrats employ to avoid dealing with a problem.

The effect that the status quo has on the social fabric of countries such as Montenegro is even graver than that of a professionally crippled public sector. In a society where there is a continuous and systematic push, on the part of the ruling elite, to establish corruption as an uncontested modus vivendi, giving up the system of higher education to its corroding clout is as good as capitulating. That’s why we cannot treat what happened in 2014 as yet another scandal. Instead, we should open a public debate on what to do about our problem with academic corruption – and persistently demand that the issue be prioritized. On that note, I should like to take this opportunity to propose three concrete things for which the public might want to advocate:

First, petition our elected representatives to mandate that every accredited institution of higher education purchase an authentication software such as TurnItIn (available in S/B/C) and run every academic paper (including BA, MA and PhD theses) in their databases through it. Whichever institution fails to do so within one year should have its accreditation automatically revoked.

Second, insist that our institutions make the criminality of “buying” academic works crystal clear. This would include demanding that the D.A. offices start filing criminal reports against those advertizing the sale of academic works and their past customers – a glance at the transaction histories of their bank accounts will give plenty of material. An effort of the sort would also include a public awareness raising campaign, although, from talking with the said “producers”, I can tell you that the majority of both buyers and sellers are, in fact, perfectly aware of their wrongdoing.

Third, insist that the mentors of degree candidates who have plagiarized their work be held accountable for negligence, at best, or complicity. Some may reasonably object to punishing an instructor for overlooking one instance of plagiarism among a hundred student papers they had to grade in a short time period. That’s a fair point, but it’s far off the mark. For instance, Montenegro’s former Chief of Police, Mr. Veselin Veljović, successfully defended a Master’s thesis. It turned out some forty pages of Mr. Veljović’s thesis were copied (verbatim) from a (sic!) undergraduate textbook written by Prof. Milenko Kreća. The funny thing is, Prof. Kreća was a member of the commission that evaluated Mr. Veljović’s Master thesis. Meaning, Prof. Kreća either failed to spot a chunk of his own writing in the thesis he had been evaluating, or he made a deal with his politically powerful protégé. This is why we need to hold the mentors accountable.

I look forward to discussing these and other suggestions as part of some eventual public discussion on how to start cleaning up the mess in which our system of higher education has gotten itself. There are competent individuals in our academia that could come up with actual policy proposals and action plans – the public’s role is to insist that something gets done. Are we capable of it? Should we even bother?

Fit For Office?

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Belgian Minister of Health and Social Affairs, Maggie De Block, has recently come under fire for, well, being too fat for the job. Her critics seem to think that Ms. De Block’s more-than-rubenesque stature would be a detriment for running the Ministry that should, among other things, deal with the country’s ever-growing obesity problem.

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Who’s Afraid of Lena Dunham?

Russell Brand

Here’s the plot: last week, Lena Dunham, an actress best known for starring in the popular dramedy series Girls, wrote an opinion piece “5 Reasons Why I Vote (and You Should Too)”. Its irritatingly digestive bullet-point style notwithstanding, the article’s main point was that women should mobilize to elect Democrats because the Republicans (“backwards, out-of-touch, downright freaking unbelievably anti-women’s health politicians”) are in the business of dictating women’s sex lives through their opposition to the contraceptive mandate). In other words, it was a simple Get-The-Government-Out-Of-My-Bedroom argument that we’ve all heard a gazillion times.

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Apathy and Binders Full of Women?

Pink-Vs-Blue

Here’s an interesting thought: America might find the much needed remedy for its painfully evident and dangerously prevalent political apathy in… Hillary Clinton. In her Reuters articleChloe Angyal cites a study that shows how women’s involvement in the electoral process impacts the level of political awareness on part of the voting public (especially women). A Clinton presidential bid would, therefore, help raise political awareness and perhaps reverse the US trend of caring less and less about politics and politicians. According to Angyal, the more prominent a female candidate is, the more people are expected to care. Seems fair enough, but it is my intuition that – when entertaining Clinton ’16 – Angyal is overlooking something.

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Why Arundhati Roy Is Wrong

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The renowned Indian author Arundhati Roy has recently published a controversial opinion piece titled „The NGO-ization of Resistance“. As it is often the case with viral articles, Roy’s piece does not contain one single innovative point – it is rather a synthesis of a number of very old claims, so familiar to the average reader that Roy probably felt she did not need to waste time backing them with facts or, God forbid, empirical data. Instead, she focused her evident writing skills on building a compelling narrative. I’m not a fan of the sort of writing that favors depiction over argumentation. But, for what it’s worth, here’s a short summary of her argument (the full text available on this link):

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Why The Ice Bucket Challenge Makes Me Sick

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As one friend recently told me, I often tend to succumb to the all-too-familiar temptation of employing elaborate narratives to conceal spite. For whatever merits the phenomenon of a contemporary hater might hold, one should be open about it. I’ve heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge. I’ve seen my social media news feeds swamped with photos of my people pouring icy water on themselves. I’m aware that it’s for charity and – shocker – I’ve heard Oprah Winfrey has done it. And, yet, its whiff of insincerity sickens me.

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