The individualisation of our exposure to information through ‘filter bubbles’ facilitates the atomisation of society and pushes dissenting voices to the margins.
Our online lives may be more insular than we recognise, which negatively affects our civic life. The great amount of attention given to issues such as ‘fake news’ reflects a larger problem, the collapse of public discourse. We lack a common platform and understanding of what constitutes meaningful public discussion, which leaves public life on shaky grounds. Our current predicament is often framed as a function of the neoliberal age, resulting in increasingly atomised societies; loneliness is up while the emotional connections underpinning collectivist politics is down. Rapid technological advancement facilitates our increasing isolation from each other and the amorality of technology demands that instruments both reflect and further the user’s values – this is embodied by the rise of the so-called ‘bubble filter’ and its creation by neoliberal companies such as Amazon or Facebook.
Aptly named, the bubble filter is the effect created from tools, used by most major websites and social media platforms, to personalise the cyber experience. This effect is demonstrated, by users finding recommended resources and google results tailored to their previous activity. The ever-present barrage of personalised advertisements reflects capitalism’s tightening of the noose around the internet’s emancipatory potential; in a space where all information should be accessible, resources not deemed to match a user’s profile or previous activity are placed at the back of the proverbial line. The bubble filter both explains and creates a climate conducive to the rise of fake news. For the user, fake news is deemed trustworthy, as it is compatible with narratives and information previously presented to them within their insular online experience.
Amazon tells us what to buy, Facebook tells us who to befriend.
In showing us products or services that logarithmically match our listed preferences in terms of consumption as well as ideology, bubble filters sift through ideas that are determined to be incompatible with our desires and worldviews. In doing so, not only do bubble filters adhere to the neoliberal dictates of customer satisfaction but conveniently provide an informational escape from the contradictions of modern, capitalist life: Amazon tells us what to buy, Facebook tells us who to befriend. Without exposure to competing ideas and values, the neoliberal citizen lacks a platform for debate and remains in the shelter of his own personalised intellectual comfort zone.
The bubble filter is the logical extension of capitalism’s influence on the way we perceive the internet. Just as capital has created zones of comfort for consumption, reflected by malls and urban policies that relocate the homeless, the unpleasant or discomforting is made absent from daily experience online as well. Accordingly, just as homeless persons (as opposed to homelessness) have become conceived of as a solvable problem, so to have narratives that differ from our own understandings of the world. Material not personally tailored for us is pushed to the peripheries.
The bubble filter demonstrates the internet as shifting from a tool of global connectivity to individual disconnect; personal opinion becomes fossilised while public discourse withers away. Without meaningful public discourse, the internet exposes us to competing opinions only through (often anonymous) trolling. This is dangerous. With little to no space for productive debate, ideological conflicts are carried out institutionally – as evinced by the onslaught of fake news accusations that characterised the final American presidential debate.
When we live in bubbles, we forget how to engage and disagree in a civil manner.
As a product of the neoliberal project, the bubble filter caters to our perceived demands for constant personalised stimulation and to the commodification of the digital experience. We find ourselves further removed from neighbours to whom we occupy distant ideological worlds; we cease to understand each other as we increasingly lack basic exposure to each other. When we live in bubbles, we forget how to engage and disagree in a civil manner. This situation has the potential to normalise extreme polarity and reactionary populism. Left without public forums to negotiate competing worldviews and engage with each other, we should not be surprised if ideological conflicts start to increasingly escalate in violent ways.
According to a number of neuroscientists and philosophers, language might not be the ultimate medium for the transmission of ideas. In the digital age, it is essential to understand its role and explore the new possibilities technology creates.
In analytic philosophy, any meaning can be expressed in language. In his book Expression and Meaning (1979), UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle calls this idea ‘the principle of expressibility, the principle that whatever can be meant can be said’. Moreover, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.
Outside the hermetically sealed field of analytic philosophy, the limits of natural language when it comes to meaning-making have long been recognised in both the arts and sciences. Psychology and linguistics acknowledge that language is not a perfect medium. It is generally accepted that much of our thought is non-verbal, and at least some of it might be inexpressible in language. Notably, language often cannot express the concrete experiences engendered by contemporary art and fails to formulate the kind of abstract thought characteristic of much modern science. Language is not a flawless vehicle for conveying thought and feelings.
In the field of artificial intelligence, technology can be incomprehensible even to experts. In the essay ‘Is Artificial Intelligence Permanently Inscrutable?’, Princeton neuroscientist Aaron Bornstein discusses this problem with regard to artificial neural networks (computational models): "nobody knows quite how they work. And that means no one can predict when they might fail." This could harm people if, for example, doctors relied on this technology to assess whether patients might develop complications.
Bornstein says organisations sometimes choose less efficient but more transparent tools for data analysis and "even governments are starting to show concern about the increasing influence of inscrutable neural-network oracles". He suggests that "the requirement for interpretability can be seen as another set of constraints, preventing a model from a 'pure' solution that pays attention only to the input and output data it is given, and potentially reducing accuracy". The mind is a limitation for artificial intelligence: "interpretability could keep such models from reaching their full potential". Since the work of such technology cannot be fully understood, it is virtually impossible to explain in language.
Language is not a flawless vehicle for conveying thought and feelings.
Ryota Kanai, neuroscientist and CEO of Araya, a Tokyo-based startup, acknowledges that "given the complexity of contemporary neural networks, we have trouble discerning how AIs produce decisions, much less translating the process into a language humans can make sense of." To that end, Kanai and his colleagues are "trying to implement metacognition in neural networks so that they can communicate their internal states".
Their ambition is to give a voice to the machine: "we want our machines to explain how and why they do what they do." This form of communication is to be developed by the machines themselves. With this feedback, researchers will serve as translators who can explain to the public decisions made by the machines. As for human language, Kanai refers to it as "the additional difficulty of teaching AIs to express themselves". (Incidentally, this assumes that computational models have ‘selves’.) Language is a challenge for artificial intelligence.
Elon Musk advances the idea ‘that we should augment the slow, imprecise communication of our voices with a direct brain-to-computer linkup’. He has founded the company Neuralink that will allegedly connect people to the network in which they will exchange thoughts without wasting their time and energy on language. As Christopher Markou, Cambridge PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law describes it in his essay for The Conversation, "it would enable us to share our thoughts, fears, hopes and anxieties without demeaning ourselves with written or spoken language".
Tim Urban, blogger and cartoonist at Wait But Why, presents Musk’s vision of thought communication and argues that "when you consider the 'lost in transmission' phenomenon that happens with language, you realise how much more effective group thinking would be". This project makes sinister assumptions: instead of enhancing verbal communication, Musk suggests abandoning it as an inadequate means of social interaction. People generally appreciate improvement of the communication networks that transmit language, but instead, they are offered a corporate utopian future of technotelepathy and an eerily dystopian present where language is an impediment to cooperation. It is both ironic and reassuring that such criticism of language can be successfully communicated by language.
In his recent essay ‘The Kekulé Problem’, American writer Cormac McCarthy discusses the origins of language and is sceptical about its fundamental role in cognition: "problems, in general, are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking — in any discipline — is largely an unconscious affair." He defines the unconscious as "a machine for operating an animal".
McCarthy regards language as a relatively recent invention and compares it to a virus that rapidly spread among humans about a hundred thousand years ago. His vision of language is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. First, language is a human faculty developed due to the gradual evolution of communication; it is problematic to conceive of it as a virus or the result of a sudden invention. Second, thought does not need to be unconscious to be non-verbal. Much conscious thought does not rely on language. Finally, humans may be facing problems that are difficult to convey through language. This might be the key challenge for both the arts and sciences in the immediate future.
While language may not be a perfect medium for thought, it is the most important means of communication that makes possible modern societies.
While language may not be a perfect medium for thought, it is the most important means of communication that makes possible modern societies, institutions, states, and cultures. Its resourcefulness allows humans to establish social relationships and design new forms of cooperation. It is a robust and highly optimised form of communication, developed through gradual change. For thousands of years, language has been a tool for social interaction. This interaction is facing existential threats (authoritarianism, isolationism, conflict...) because the subjective experiences (think of the limits of empathy when it comes to migrants) and the knowledge (think of the complexity of global warming) that are engaged in the arts and sciences appear to have gone beyond the expressive power of language.
Humanity depends on the capacity of language to communicate complex, new ideas and thus integrate them into culture. If people fail to understand and discuss emerging global problems, they will not be able to address them in solidarity with one another. In his essay ‘Our World Outsmarts Us’ for the Aeon magazine, Robert Burton, the former associate director of the department of neurosciences at the UCSF Medical Center at Mt Zion, highlights this conundrum when he asks: "if we are not up to the cognitive task, how might we be expected to respond?" Individuals alone cannot stop climate change or curb the rising inequality of income distribution. These goals can only be achieved by concerted efforts. To work together, people need language.
In the arts, it is felt that subjective experiences are not always transmittable by language. Artists confront the limits of concrete expression. Scientists, in their turn, understand that language is a crude tool incapable of conveying abstract ideas. Science thus probes the limits of abstract thought. Both the arts and sciences are dissatisfied with verbal communication. To induce wonder, artists may forego language. To obtain knowledge, scientists often leave language behind.
In his aptly titled essay ‘Science Has Outgrown the Human Mind and Its Limited Capacities’, Ahmed Alkhateeb, a molecular cancer biologist at Harvard Medical School, suggests outsourcing research to artificial intelligence because "human minds simply cannot reconstruct highly complex natural phenomena efficiently enough in the age of big data". The problem is that language is a tool for the gathering of knowledge and appreciation of beauty by the whole society.
Without language, the arts and sciences lose cultural significance and political clout: there is less hope for the arts to move people’s hearts and less opportunity for sciences to enlighten the public.
Abandoning language marginalises the arts and sciences. Wonder and knowledge become inaccessible for the community at large. When people make decisions about the future, political processes may fail to register what is happening at the forefront of human thought. Without language, the arts and sciences lose cultural significance and political clout: there is less hope for the arts to move people’s hearts and less opportunity for sciences to enlighten the public. With the arts and sciences on the margins, humanity undermines its cultural safeguards. Today’s dominant narratives foreground the progress of science and the democratisation of art, but global challenges necessitate an even more active engagement with scientific, moral, and aesthetic dilemmas on the part of humanity. Language is one of the key tools that can realise this ambition.
It is important to strike a balance between pushing the limits of language and using it as a tool to communicate and collaborate. Artists and scientists might approach the public with ideas that cannot be easily understood and yet need to be conveyed by language. In his essay ‘To Fix the Climate, Tell Better Stories’, Michael Segal, editor-in-chief at Nautilus, argues that science needs narratives to become culture. He posits that narratives can help humanity solve global problems. This potential is revealed to us if we look at how ‘indigenous peoples around the world tell myths which contain warning signs for natural disasters’. Today people can construct helpful narratives based on an expert understanding of the world. These stories can relate unfathomable dangers to the frail human body, and language is the best political vehicle for this task.
In his 2017 New York Times bestseller ‘On Tyranny’, Yale historian Timothy Snyder, for example, draws from the history of the twentieth century to relate the rise of authoritarian regimes to concrete threats to human life, encouraging his readers to stand up to tyranny. He asks them to take responsibility for the face of the world, defend institutions, remember professional ethics, believe in truth, and challenge the status quo. His language is powerful and clear. Such narratives can help address complex social and environmental problems by using human-scale categories of language.
Ultimately, the arts and sciences grasp critically important knowledge and engage significant experiences, but often fail to express them in language. As Wittgenstein says, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent". This silence might lead to dire consequences for humanity. It is crucial to break the silence. The arts and sciences need to talk to the public and to advance language and culture.
The latest spike in the price of bitcoin has all the hallmarks of investor mania.
The latest spike in the price of bitcoin has all the hallmarks of investor mania. Kristoffer Koch is the hapless hero in the cryptocurrency version of the classic get rich quick fable. He bought some bitcoin in 2009 for $26.60 when researching an academic paper on encryption. Bitcoin fans know what follows. Kristoffer noticed Bitcoin was becoming something of a sensation in the media. After a few nervous attempts he remembered his password and discovered he had more than 5,000 bitcoin hidden away. The Guardian reported in October 2013 that this was worth a staggering $886,000. This treasure trove will have continued to appreciate at quite astonishing levels since then. On January 1 this year Bitcoin passed the psychologically significant $1,000 price – meaning Kristoffer would be celebrating the new year with $5m in the bank. And since then the value has more than doubled. He can sell 5,000 Bitcoin right now for $11,973,450. ‘Bitcoin is a classic mania’ Criminals selling drugs on the darknet will see the currency delivering the same kinds of profits today as the sale of cocaine. But will it deliver the same rush, and the same addiction – and will it end with cardiac arrest? There is no doubt that bitcoin is right now exhibiting all the signs of being a bubble. Indeed, this appears to be part of the attraction. Joshua Rosenblatt, a US based lawyer and bitcoin investor, said: "The returns have been unreal and there's an aspect of not wanting to miss out on a bubble." Adam Button, a currency analyst with ForexLive.com, is clear. "Bitcoin is a classic mania. There is no fundamental underpinning for it, other than it's a compelling technological story. But the only people using bitcoin are nerds and criminals, and far more the second category than the first category." The south sea bubble Charles Haytar, the CEO of market analysis platform CryptoCompare, agrees. "Lots of inexperienced investors are surging into the market, and it's causing a bit of a bubble” he said, before making a comparison to the South Sea Company. Investment bubbles are indeed as old as capitalism itself. They have been a recognised menace since the Dutch Tulip Bubble ruined the foolhardy of Holland in 1637. The price of a tulip grew 20-fold and eclipsed the price of a grand manor house before suddenly collapsing and losing 99 percent of its value. Then followed the South Sea Bubble when a single firm was granted a monopoly in trade with South America by the British state. Shares in the South Sea Company lept from £128 in January 1720 to £1050 by the following June, before suddenly collapsing and causing an economic crisis. The value of an ounce of gold In living memory we have also experienced the dotcom bubble. The NASAQ Composite rocketed from 500 in early 1990 to 5,000 in March 2000. And then the index crashed in October 2002, causing a recession. And then of course the 2007 collapse of the housing bubble. The question for investors, large and small, is, where are we in the Bitcoin bubble cycle? Can money still be made? The question for the rest of us is, how important is bitcoin and how might all this affect us? The growth of Bitcoin in the last few months is phenomenal. In March, the price of a single coin exceeded the value of an ounce of gold, according to the BBC. Since then it has nearly doubled. Inbound institutional interest Can this growth be sustained? There are some arguments being made that it can. Bitcoin, it is suggested, is only now coming of age. Get in while you can. Adam White, vice-president of GDAX, believes the latest spike is because institutional investors are increasingly involved because trade is about to get a lot easier. The hike is "really correlated very tightly with a lot of new inbound institutional interest." There has been a rush of investment from Japan following the announcement by the government that the currency was now a legal payment method. Haytar notes that the “Japanese have given bitcoin the green light as a currency and are looking to increase the rigour that their exchanges are subject to.” Ulmart, the largest online store in Russia, will also begin accepting Bitcoin. Our industry is up for disruption Even the Financial Times is reporting on adopters of the Bitcoin craze. The paper reported this week that Abigail Johnson, the chief executive of Fidelity, a 71-year-old firm holding $2.2tn in managed assets, was accepting Bitcoin in its canteen. “I am in a traditional financial services business, but” – she said – “the evolution of technology is setting our industry up for disruption.” Further, it seems Bitcoin may be about to solve a problem which is slowly leading to a potential crisis. 56 firms from 21 different countries have reached an agreement on how they will use the Bitcoin blockchain in future. This is apparently hugely significant. These factors suggest that the Bitcoin journey is only at the beginning, that we are all early adopters and pioneers and like Kristoffer we can throw a disposable amount of cash and then in a few years buy a luxury home in the South of France and a yacht. Collapsing all the way to zero But. Abigail is elsewhere reported setting out the problems with Bitcoin. It has some technical problems – ledgers can and have been hacked. It could be made illegal, rival currencies are illegal in most countries. No overall authority is in control. And it’s not as useful as it might seem. "We need to come up with use cases for this technology,” she says. The main problem, clearly, is the price can drop. And it does. As CBS Money Watch reported: “The bitcoin market crashed three times between 2011 and 2014, plunging more than 50 percent each time.” In January, after passing the $1,000 line it almost immediately fell by $200. There are other very serious reasons to be concerned. Firstly, there is nothing to prevent the value of Bitcoin collapsing all the way to zero. There is no central bank ready to pump billions buying up currency when the market turns, as the Bank of England has done on many occasions to prop up the pound. A simple transfer of wealth There is no regulation of the currency, no rules. Added to this, it is possible to trade the currency with almost total anonymity. Nobody knows who owns how much. This may be fine for the time being. But the introduction of larger investors changes everything: someone could short Bitcoin and then sell enough to cause a drop in price. What if a major investor like George Soros – “the man who broke the Bank of England” – went to war with bitcoin? The other issue is bitcoin does not and cannot create value: so value must be coming from somewhere else. In effect, every time the price of bitcoin rises the worth of all the currencies being sold falls. Your pound is worth ever so slightly less. The early investors have make their fortunes, but this is ultimately a simple transfer of wealth from everyone else. Will bitcoin be Myspace? Does this matter? The current spike means that the digital currencies combined are now worth a total of $79 billion. Bitcoin is worth $35 billion – reaching the same market capitalisation of Ford, at $45 billion, and Tesla, at $50 billion. A drop in the ocean in terms of currency. Where will it be in a decade’s time? And then there is the rise of rival currencies. The rise in price suggests there is more demand for bitcoin than there is supply – the magic of Bitcoin is the level of supply is more or less known (something that historically proved not to be the case with gold). But other companies can make the same gold, and that is an unknown. So how big is the cryptocurrency market, and will this market be saturated by other newer, better versions? Rival currency Ethereum has now reached $17 billion and Ripple has surged to $13 billion in recent weeks. Will Bitcoin be the MySpace of digital money, with its value collapsing when a Facebook finally arrives. These blistering surges Wolf Richter, an analyst, raises serious concerns about new versions of bitcoin, rings the alarm bell. He said: "After these blistering surges of thousands of percentage points in the shortest time, no one is even trying to pretend that these are usable currencies.” And when the price does fall, who are you going to sell to? It is likely that the fact bitcoin is used as a currency to buy drugs and illegal services on the darknet has provided something of a buffer. If you fear a drop in value, you can always get onto the latest version of Silk Road and “liquify your assets”. But if the price collapses by half in a day, will dealers still deal? These are all factors that suggest that Bitcoin is a very risky investment. But the most significant indicator is simply the rise in price itself. This is mania pure and simple. The Dotcom bubble as appetizer Haytar is very clear: "I would not advise anyone to buy right now. I’m worried that the lack of rationality at this point might hurt the market." Richter goes even further. He claims that the coming crash “will make the dotcom bubble look like an appetizer." So where does this leave us? I want to end with our old friend Kristoffer. He cashed out most of his bitcoin to put a deposit down on a flat. Clearly the sensible move. So, is he one of the luckiest people alive, landing almost a million dollars in free cash? Or is he the biggest loser, staring at the loss of a potential $10m jackpot? It’s a modern fable. And there is a moral. The problem with investment, as with all forms of gambling, is unless you know exactly when to jump on and when to jump off it always feels like you have lost out to someone else.
What is happening in Brazil is a process of awakening. Many Brazilians are realizing that the political system has been “rigged” against them for a long time, maybe since the very beginning. Interview. Português
“Name at least one way to tame the upsurges of tiresome suns, though the uncontrollable in me is the same – endless flows of answers fleeting fiercely, stuck in this stuck pond of the mind. Cathedrals and skyscrapers in sight, towering high up where I am supposed to belong, still so low, still a crow, croaking the never-ending cycle of life, which I observantly go past and beyond, shedding my blood for marble and gold, till the process is complete, and I am loaded to the database of essence”.
-- “Man of The Future”, in A Lingua do Pulsar
Leonardo Lopes da Silva was born in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Campo Grande, Brazil, where he lived until he was 28 years old. Brazilian by birth, teacher by trade, writer by impulse. A wandering man of letters, familiar with being a stranger on strange lands, Leonardo writes in bursts of inspiration, drinking in from Brazilian, Portuguese, American, British, French, Spanish and Russian influences, himself of Portuguese, Native Brazilian, African, and Dutch ancestry, taking residence in cities as diverse as Rio de Janeiro, London and Moscow, where he was based for several years, and currently, in Lisbon.
Manuel Serrano: Leonardo, you have lived in very different countries, amongst different peoples and within contrasting cultures. What have you learned from such experiences and how have they changed the way you understand the world?
Leonardo Lopes da Silva: One of the main eye-opening realisations that I had was when I walked the streets of London by myself as a teenager in 1997, and it was this funny feeling that I had been there before, that every person I walked past shares the same little joys and struggles that I and my fellow countrymen back home did, that we were not that different after all. I grew up in a world where everything was clearly delineated, North and South, East and West, the rich and the poor, developed and underdeveloped countries (the term “developing” was not yet common at the time).
Living in London has shown me that there are no such absolutes, and that the lines were becoming blurrier and blurrier all the time. You can be a citizen of a multi-cultural, multi-national patchwork of a city which encourages individual freedom, respect and tolerance of different cultures and traditions, but which still put up invisible borders for some urban areas according to the ethnicity or social class of those who lived there, and unwritten rules for relationships and mobility (“Why on earth would you go shopping in Kilburn? Don’t you know who lives there?”, I was once asked. Or “I would not walk around Brixton at this time of night if I were you”). And that is the London I grew to love deeply, the place where I would be so impressed to see two orange and blue haired punk rockers sucking each other’s faces on the Tube, between an elderly lady with her face buried in a book and a Sikh man fingering his beads.
It all comes down to places of congregation, which are offered by every city, and temporarily lift the tensions and differences between all members of society.
In this regard, I understood that Rio de Janeiro, my hometown, could be seen as a more egalitarian city, with its geography (poor communities huddled together with upper-class high rise buildings by mountains and seaside locations) and beaches as places where people of all kinds and walks of life come together. That understanding has changed, however. It all comes down to places of congregation, which are offered by every city, and temporarily lift the tensions and differences between all members of society. London has pubs, parks and the Tube. Rio has its beaches.
Moscow has the 9 May parades and processions. So, going back to my main realization, we are all the same, but we express ourselves in a different way, with varying degrees of introversion or extroversion, in different settings, trying to fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing something unique, with our own language. Strangely enough though, we are always trying to compare ourselves to others, seeing them as either superior or inferior, more Christian or less Christian, more Muslim or less Muslim, more civilized or less civilized, more authentic or less authentic. Our cultural upbringing is our blessing and our curse.
We are always trying to compare ourselves to others, seeing them as either superior or inferior.
MS: Brazil, your country of birth, is going through an endless crisis, as corruption and polarization have become common. Meanwhile, in Russia, freedom of expression and political participation is often curtailed by the regime. What can you tell us about these two, very different, crisis?
LLS: They are not as different as you might think. Both crises are features of a trend towards stasis in the democratic scene. The majority of Russians, with some very notable exceptions, have become rather jaded with regards to how much they could achieve by voting, as the result is always the same. The regime works relentlessly to deprive them of viable options, and there is a growing risk that their machine might have become too efficient at that. It is an environment that is wary of sudden changes, and where the unpalatable items in their agenda – suppression of the rights of “undesirables, almost full control of the media by the government, the pursuing of an untenable economic policy based almost on oil and gas – is offset by the distribution of benefits to the elderly in an ageing population, and the constant expansion of facilities and services in a few privileged cities (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi, key towns in Siberia) at the expense of the impoverishment of the country. It is important to note, though, that none of that is new. It has, in a way, always happened, since Czarist times, and will keep on happening, in the minds of many Russians. What is familiar and known is always better than the unplanned and the unknown, and they had a very painful lesson with unchecked “democracy” and “capitalism” under the rule of Boris Yeltsin, which led millions to poverty and economic instability. Stability seems to be at the top of the Russian mindset, and it should be pursued at all costs. Vladimir Putin was the answer to their prayers.
Both crises are features of a trend towards stasis in the democratic scene.
What is happening in Brazil is a process of awakening but also quick jadedness. Many Brazilians who came out of poverty joined the middle classes in protesting for changes, but are beginning to realize that the political system has been “rigged”, to use a Trumpism, against them for a long time, maybe since its very beginning. There is the dismal disillusionment about the value of taking part in politics, as they are under the impression that every single politician is corrupt, at least the ones they do not support. Ricardo Boechat, one of the most popular newsreaders in Brazilian media, calls this process the footballisation of politics – people start consuming political news like sports and taking political sides on social media is a kind of a national pastime, with truculent and foul-mouthed “debates” about which side is better, as if they were supporting their local football team. We’ve got the “bolsomitos” (supporters of far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro), the “petralhas” (supporters of the Worker’s Party – PT), the “coxinhas” (anyone who opposed the Worker’s Party government initiatives and supported Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment), and this sort of hysteria is making so much noise that it is turning people off political engagement, as well as the growing perception that there are no alternatives left, which gives rise to dangerous precedents in Brazil, such as movements calling for the return of the military dictatorship in Brazil, and historical revisionism – they (the generals who ran Brazil from 1964 to 1985) were not so bad after all, were they? At least, they were not as corrupt, were they? We had a great deal of economic development, didn’t we? Education in our schools was better, wasn’t it? – these arguable points are being used to slowly gnaw at and undermine Brazilians’ belief in their democratic institutions. That is the most worrisome and terrifying sign, as Brazilian population in 1964 was also divided, and the military solution was offered to them as a way of making life less political, or even apolitical. It was the aspiration of the military – to remove politics from the equation, and make everything more predictable, more rational, easier to plan. Men will be men, women will be women. Rich will be rich, poor will be poor. The same familiar faces will be on TV and the news, and the scum will be swept under the carpet, or locked up underground.
The yearning for something safe. Something stable. Perhaps it rings a bell?
MS: Leonardo, what would you say that led you to become a writer? It was your family, living in a city like Rio, a very united community? When – and how – did you find your voice?
That is the most worrisome and terrifying sign, as Brazilian population in 1964 was also divided, and the military solution was offered to them as a way of making life less political, or even apolitical.
LLS: I would say that reading so much compelled me to write. My mum encouraged me to read when I was really young, and I haven’t stopped ever since. But I did not write until I was asked by a dear teacher of mine (thank you, Monica Janara) to submit a poem to a school creative writing contest, which I won in my category. I found it, and still find the poem very mundane and ordinary (it’s got the less than remarkable title “Under The Starry Night”), and have tried to come up with original ways of saying the same things ever since. I used elements of my life in Rio to forge the poetic settings, but they were not always the primary drivers.
I found my poetic voice at an early age, when I tried to put my feelings for girls on paper, and have been verborrhegic, restrained, revolted, meditative, spiritual, passionate, surreal. I wrote my poems inspired by muses, poetic parents and writers I read compulsively, burning images in my mind. I believe that writing is an enlightening, experimental – shall I say masturbatory? – experience whereby the writer rubs himself against reality and the dictatorial forces of the senses to try and impose his own view of the world, drown, overwhelm the reader with a raw, resounding truth only he and the reader could experience. I apologize for the image, but I find it hard to avoid using it. Once I started writing, I developed a certain form of blindness and disregard for other contemporary writers’ work, an involuntary misreading of their work, and cultivated a quasi-religious relationship with dead poets and writers. I became a kind of virulent sectarian for my writings, overprotective of them to the point of not even sharing them with anyone but a select few.
Fortunately, with age came the maturity to let go and share them with the world. Writing feels like the ultimate act of self love to me sometimes. You stubbornly keep churning out page upon page of your own views, your own images and words and metaphors, so you will not be silenced by others’. It is a strange form of egotism to me. Obviously, it is my personal impression, and it is definitely not shared by everyone. I write out of desperation, out of the feeling that I can not hold it in any longer, and this urgency results in something sloppy but spontaneous, cryptic but mesmerizing, dense but true (to my internal reality). I find myself puzzled when I read my own poems, and they feel as though they did not come from me, but from someone else, with a somber, utterly confident, ultra-masculine (in the sense that it is out to conquer and dominate) voice. I cannot read any of my poems in their entirety by heart, and that is a sign of the estranged relationship I have with my own voice. I wish to get people to tell me their own impressions about my poems by publishing them in print and online.
MS: And, have you found your audience?
LLS: I have had family and friends and acquaintances who became more than family to me by reading my poems and purchasing my book. But I can’t say I have found a readership beyond this beloved universe I share with my family and friends. And that is one of the things that I am most disappointed in myself with. Perhaps I should make the poems more reader-friendly? But even if I knew how, I don’t think I would be able to. Once you start writing in your own language, there is no going back from using those sounds, words, phrases, syntax and imagery, unless it comes from within you.
We all build our own universe as we read and interpret the world around us, and it is up to writers and poets to put up a mirror consisting of their words and narratives to show the readers their own reflection.
MS: You published a poetry book entitled “The Pulsating Language”. Would you please explain the concept to our readers?
LLS: I came across the idea of calling the book “The Pulsating Language” or “The Language of a Pulsar” (the word “pulsar” in Portuguese has two different meanings, and I did want to make it this way) after being inspired by my good friend Daniela Euzébio from São Paulo. She once called my poems “pulsemas” (her neologism brought together the words “pulse” and “poem”), as she believes they have a beating rhythm, akin to heartbeats. If the poems are born out of my compulsions and obsessions, it makes perfect sense to see myself as a pulsating being. It is also a really beautiful image in astronomical terms. Pulsars are stars which have collapsed upon themselves, shrinking in size and increasing their mass to astonishing high rates, revolving around themselves at much higher speeds, and emitting these radio signals that are broadcast throughout the universe. If one was to pick up these signals on their radio, they would believe that they come from another civilization, as they so regular and have a fixed pattern. Pulsars are believed to be our future GPS system to guide us through the universe once we finally master interstellar travel in a distant future. I find this image to be suitable to writers and poets, even though it is terribly presumptuous and utterly inappropriate for our times. I try to cover up the blasphemy of wanting to recreate the world in my own image with ritualistic words that explain our sense of birth, of loss, of deep desire and yearning, of anger, of fear, of awe and wonder. With every new poem and story that I write, I attempt to create my own language, a hybrid and macaronic mix of all of my experiences, cryptic and visually alluring enough, to broadcast it to the world around me, whether they listen to me or not. The pulsating language. The language of a pulsar.
If the poems are born out of my compulsions and obsessions, it makes perfect sense to see myself as a pulsating being.
MS: Rather than indicating your reader where the path is, and where the path leads to, you encourage them to find their own way. With their expressions, with their words and their interpretations, you help them find their voices…
LLS: That is the goal, yes. We all build our own universe as we read and interpret the world around us, and it is up to writers and poets to put up a mirror consisting of their words and narratives to show the readers their own reflection. Harold Bloom states that by reading, we might find fragments of ourselves, our own words, which we have long forgotten. We usher in the familiar by grafting unto ourselves what is not familiar to us at first, until we realize it was part of us all along. All of us have been Hamlet, Robin Hood, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Elizabeth Bennett, and Capitu at one point in our lives. Or will be. At least in our imagination.
MS: How difficult do you find it to be a writer nowadays, in a world that sometimes fails to perceive the importance of anything that doesn’t generate vast sums of money? Can you believe in a world without philosophy, without poetry, without literature?
Harold Bloom states that by reading, we might find fragments of ourselves, our own words, which we have long forgotten.
LLS: It is a herculean undertaking, like Sisyphus on his daily errand. Especially because time is such a valuable commodity nowadays, and I just cannot live off my writing. As a teacher, I can do that, but it is something that takes a lot out of you, in all possible aspects. I have resigned myself to that fact, and try to keep expectations as low as possible. As those who wrote poetry in World War I, you are supposed to keep writing, not because you can afford to, but because you HAVE TO. Onward and forward. I suppose you might encounter notoriety and financial success in your lifetime, but that will be the culmination of a combination of factors you might not entirely be on top of. Even if, in my honest opinion, there is little room for the appreciation of poetry as it used to be, stuffed on a piece of paper, I must remain essentially optimistic in believing in the reinvention of poetry, as the media and the messaging format we use can give us conditions to do that. A tweet could be turned into a poem. A photograph shared on your Facebook page could be turned into a super condensed poem, as a meme. Poetry is supposed to merge with film, with music, with all sorts of art or non-artistic undertakings, to survive as the supremely human form of expression. As long as we keep our eyes open and our ears unpeeled, human arts will go on, to speak truth to power, to comfort us from the unrelenting truth of our mortality, to remind us of who we are, we were, who we can be. Otherwise, if we keep quiet, the stones will cry out.
Austrian-British philosopher, Karl Popper, argued for the existence of several lights to illuminate the truth. This is the essence of an open society and what the Hungarian government is fighting against.
According to Ralf Dahrendorf, Karl Popper described the pursuit of knowledge to his students as searchlights which illuminate details of the world. To Popper, knowledge is not absolute, and cannot be possessed in its entirety. This pursuit of knowledge is the ability to be critical, to expose falsehoods and simplifications and to gradually improve our understanding of an ever-changing and complex world. The searchlight principle applies as much to science as to politics. The purpose of science is not to find proof towards a final theory but to refute existing theories when they do not stand the test of time. This demands that scientists expand knowledge through criticism while remaining open to other explanations and one’s own human limitations.
Popper argued against a single and authoritative light source illuminating what ought to be true.
Applied to politics, this means the refutation of ideology and the demand to institutionalise critiques towards those in power through regular open and fair elections and a functioning and vibrant civil society. Popper argued against a single and authoritative light source illuminating what ought to be true. He argued for the existence of several lights which illuminate parts of the truth, such as a functioning legal system, civil society, fair elections and an open media. This is the essence of an open society and what the Hungarian government is fighting against.
Since the Orbán government came to power it has taken aim at all sources of knowledge and criticism. The political opposition has been actively discredited. A formerly free media was brought under government control with only a few free sources remaining with little resonance beyond Budapest. The constitution was rewritten, education centralised and critical civil society actors hassled by tax authorities. What the government tried and has largely succeeded in doing, is to take full control of the political narrative in Hungary.
This aligns with Jan-Werner Müller’s observation that authoritarian/populist governments, such as the Hungarian, have a reductionist and moralistic view of the political, in that they claim it is them and only them who represent the people. Whoever disagrees with this claim is either wrong and ought to adopt the government’s reasoning or is simply not a part of the people. It is here that the government’s attack on a society’s main searchlight, free academia, is rooted.
Authoritarian/populist governments, such as the Hungarian, have a reductionist and moralistic view of the political, in that they claim it is them and only them who represent the people.
Through introducing a new higher education law, the government made the existence of one of Hungary’s most prestigious higher education institutions, Central European University (CEU), nearly impossible. It is a university which has its programs accredited in the US and Hungary and does what any other university does, engage in open discussion, free research and teaching. Yet the government has not been shy to treating CEU like an enemy of the state through pushing the law through the parliament in a fast track procedure, falsely accusing the university of cheating, ignoring any procedural and substantial constitutional safeguards and staging a verbal war against CEU’s founder, George Soros.
Authoritarian regimes’ influence on the wellbeing of their people, as Orbán knows very well, is limited and the miracles these regimes claim to perform are merely smoke and mirrors. Yet these regimes create unsurmountable dissonances when they claim to fully represent the people with all their hopes, aspirations and demands, yet practically lack control over basic economic or societal means, such as in Hungary, which is entirely dependent on foreign investments and subject to the free movement of people within the EU.
The real problems Hungary is grappling with are considerable, complex and deeply rooted. Hungary’s health-care and education systems are blatantly underfunded and close to collapse, relative poverty is high, homelessness and alcoholism are stark societal problems and 13 years after Hungary joined the EU a critical amount of well-educated young people still choose to leave the country. These problems are pressing, they are felt closely by anyone who lives in the country and demand exactly what Popper passionately supports in an open society: open and inclusive consultation, finding small-scale and practical solutions, openly admitting mistakes and widely sharing success.
One can say Popper saw this coming when he wrote in “The open society and its enemies”: The secret of intellectual excellence is the spirit of criticism; it is intellectual independence. And this leads to difficulties which must prove insurmountable for any kind of authoritarianism. The authoritarian will, in general, select those who obey, who believe, who respond to his influence. But in doing so, he is bound to select mediocrities. For he excludes those who revolt, who doubt, who dare to resist his influence. Never can an authority admit that the intellectually courageous may be the most valuable type.
Popper is clear that in an authoritarian regime, academic freedom is not accepted. The searchlight may at any time highlight an uncomfortable truth and disobey authoritarian control. Yet Hungary is not Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, the cases Popper was writing about at the time. The Orbán government has been democratically elected. It remains unthreatened in the Hungarian political landscape and CEU poses no political opposition. So why is it attacking CEU and its founder George Soros?
As it attacks free and critical institutions to deflect from its own incapability, it actively accepts the decay of a society it claims to fully represent.
An authoritarian regime such as the Orbán government does not possess the means to tackle such complex problems precisely because it turns off the searchlights that can highlight and assess the complexity of the societal and political reality and are instrumental in the search for appropriate solutions. As it seeks to kill off any possible threat to its power, it undermines all sources of societal and political advancement. As it attacks free and critical institutions to deflect from its own incapability, it actively accepts the decay of a society it claims to fully represent.
This is the real tragedy of the current Hungarian experience. The uncontrolled rage against free and critical institutions from the side of the government is entirely parasitic. The Orbán government promises its people that by torpedoing the searchlights of free academia, civil society, the judiciary and an independent media, Hungary will enter a bright future. Yet in fact what is happening is that Hungary is becoming a very dark place.
Most people can't afford a transcript from their own trial even when it's the only thing that could prove their innocence. We need to move beyond the status quo.
For many people, campaigning to change the legal system conjures up images of high profile cases in the Supreme Court and photo opportunities on the steps of the Court of Appeal. Such public moments are important achievements for activists trying to bring about change in the way the law operates. However, they are not the only place where revolutions can happen.
Behind the scenes there are a whole range of processes and procedures that unobtrusively take place every day which, if left unchecked and unchanged, allow inequalities to persist.
The transcription company quoted her £6,000 for the transcript. In the time it took her to scrape together the money, the original recording was destroyed.
The legal profession generally is beginning to understand the role new technology can have in eliminating inefficiencies. Lawyers are increasingly comfortable with e-discovery – the process of identifying electronic evidence for a case, and document automation – in which a smart piece of software automatically populates forms from information provided by clients.
And there is much excitement about the potential of online courts. It is easy to understand why. They have the potential to streamline certain simple cases, freeing up time and resources, and offering a more efficient experience. However, lost in the excitement are the many, far more easily achievable changes that can be made to the processes and systems that deliver the administration of justice. Updating these does not rely on the computer literacy of vulnerable individuals, or the irreversible selling off of valuable assets, such as court buildings.
By taking care of seemingly mundane, administrative tasks, services can free up the experts’ time to focus on the things that really need their attention. This is something that has yet to be embraced so enthusiastically by the judiciary and the court system.
Take the production of court transcriptions. Not something that anyone, not even most lawyers, gives much thought to. And yet, it presents an incredible opportunity for behind-the-scenes change that has the potential to profoundly improve the justice system.
In my work at the Centre for Criminal Appeals we saw many clients for whom the transcript of the court hearing was a pivotal document. Mark (not his real name) was just 17 when he was convicted of joint enterprise murder. He is legally blind, and played no role in the fatal attack by two of his acquaintances that led to his conviction. His mother immediately began to fight for an appeal. She struggled to find a lawyer to take the case on. In the process, the original solicitors lost Mark’s case file. The transcript became the only potential record of what had happened in his case. The transcription company quoted her £6,000 for the transcript. In the time it took her to scrape together the money, the original recording was destroyed.
A client serving 34 years for attempted murder was quoted £20,000 for the trial transcript.
Currently, the Ministry of Justice contracts with private providers of transcription once every few years. The resulting service is relatively and inconsistently expensive and inefficient and too often results in poor quality transcripts with gaps and inaccuracies. The process has changed very little over the years. It still involves hard copy request forms and CDs being couriered around the country to teams of typists who laboriously hand type everything.
The intellectual property for the transcripts sits with the private providers, as do the recordings. Many of these audio files languish in disparate storage units gathering dust until they are destroyed seven years later.
Transcripts in this country can cost thousands of pounds to access. A client of the Centre for Criminal Appeals serving 34 years for attempted murder was quoted £20,000 for the trial transcript. There is little barrier to accessing them for those who have money - commercial clients regularly pay for their own stenographer to come to court and create a daily record of proceedings for them. Legal publishers commission transcripts of the judge’s summing up in major cases for their document libraries. These are available to those who can pay for a subscription.
And yet, these arrangements preclude most normal people from being able to access the transcript of their own court hearing, even where it is an essential document for their case.
As a result of seeing the impact of these arrangements, I teamed up with a lawyer and a developer to create a more efficient, more cost effective alternative which takes advantage of recent advances in technology. Just: Transcription is speech-to-text tool that automates the creation of court transcripts and spoken legal advice records to promote more equal access. We bid during the most recent Ministry of Justice procurement rounds for one of the new transcript contracts. The process presented no real opportunity for change to the status quo, and as a result, the contracts have all been awarded to the same small group of private for-profit companies and the inequality of access continues.
Understanding the patterns and trends that would emerge were such rich qualitative data managed coherently would offer incredible and unprecedented insight into what is happening inside courts.
One of the most striking aspects of this situation, however, is not just that barriers to accessing court documents are adding to delays and expense to the public purse. There is a huge opportunity cost in not having better systems in place for capturing and analysing the information that is held within and among these transcripts. Understanding the patterns and trends that would emerge were such rich qualitative data managed coherently would offer incredible and unprecedented insight into what is happening inside courts. There is little doubt that if the Ministry of Justice had this level of awareness about what is going on, it would have a wealth of evidence-based new ideas about improvements that could be made.
For an institution on the scale of the justice system, achieving these kinds of changes requires a certain degree of culture change. Outside the system itself, however, there are many individuals and organisations with the skills and experience necessary to support this, and a real willingness to help. Much of the technology that would be required already exists, and has been proven in other settings. Together, such change is well within reach.
It is easy to be attracted by the big ideas. The exciting, high profile initiatives, like online courts, no doubt have a role to play. And yet chances are being lost to improve the way the justice system administers itself. This is not a matter of mere bureaucracy. What is at stake are the fundamental principles of our world-renowned legal system - its fairness and equality. Technology is irrefutably part of the justice of the future - now is the time to seize all the opportunities it offers, and make them work for everyone.
Appeasing votebanks of the Hindu right, instead of legislation, a consultation has been launched which serves to obscure the ugly reality of caste-based discrimination which is alive and well in Britain.
Back in the 70s, when Bhangra – the popular Punjabi dance music – first hit the scene at South Asian parties and social events, it was about South Asian unity and fighting racism. Now all too often its inherent machismo is directed at glorifying Jats, a powerful farming caste in India, and often insulting oppressed-caste men and women.
What has happened in Bhangra is only one aspect of the ugly caste prejudice and discrimination, which is now, more than ever, dividing South Asian communities – particularly Sikhs and Hindus (although caste prejudice exists among South Asian Muslims and Christians too). Since 2005, major campaigning by the UK's Dalit organisations has called for legislation outlawing caste discrimination.
As a result, such a law has effectively been passed, with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 imposing a 'duty' on the government to make caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act of 2010.
However, ignoring all legal norms, the government has failed to comply with this duty. Instead it appears to be backtracking. Despite substantial evidence of the need for legislation it has launched a public consultation, which asks not whether the law is likely to be strong enough in its present form to be effective, but whether it might not “stereotype... certain ethnic groups” or “potentially have unintended consequences for members of those groups naturally associated with... caste”.
The consultation also suggests that the law could be abandoned in favour of reliance on the development of case law, pointing to a case (Tirkey vs Chandok) where an adivasi (indigenous Indian) domestic worker, successfully brought a claim against her employer, for breaches of employment law and won damages under the Equality Act for discrimination on grounds of religion and race (Waughray, 2016).
However, as UK's major Dalit organisations wrote in a recent joint letter to the Minister for Equalities, Justine Greening, the assumption that case law would lead to a change is baseless “it is unlikely that case law will be developed because of the major risk of cases being unsuccessful... no one [including Ms Tirkey] has succeeded in a claim for discrimination specifically on the grounds of caste under the Equality Act.” The letter has so far received no reply.
According to Satpal Muman of Castewatch UK, the largest Dalit organisation in Britain, the consultation, written as it is in impenetrable legalistic language, is a smokescreen by which to obscure the bitter everyday experiences of caste prejudice, 'untouchability', and other features of the ideology of the pre-modern caste system which is still alive and well in the South Asian diaspora in Britain. He directs me to his organisation's documentation of cases of elderly patients being refused care because 'upper-caste' medical professionals will not touch them, or workers being sidelined, or refused promotion, and school children being bullied for reasons of caste.
The consultation is a smokescreen by which to obscure the bitter everyday experiences of caste prejudice, 'untouchability', and other features of the ideology of the pre-modern caste system which is still alive and well in the South Asian diaspora in Britain.
Dalit women in West London told me of sexualised casteist slurs thrown at them in supermarkets, beauty parlours and other public spaces. A law against caste discrimination could clearly be used to combat some of these incidents.
In the numerous cases that occur in the private arena, the law will not be directly applicable but may act as a deterrent. In relationships and marriages, for example, where transgressing caste boundaries lead to emotional and sometimes physical abuse. As Manju (not her real name), a Dalit married to a man of a 'higher caste', put it: “it does not matter how much money you have in the bank or how many degrees you have under your belt, they see your caste as defining you… I was not allowed to go into the kitchen or to touch food because I was considered impure…".
“In recent years, caste prejudice has, if anything, becoming more entrenched in this country,” says Meena Varma of the Dalit Solidarity Network. There appear to be two interlinked reasons for this. Firstly, in recent years and particularly since Modi came to power, there has been a horrific increase in violence against minorities (Muslims, Christians and Dalits) in India, with Hindu supremacist killer gangs and vigilante squads allied to the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) raping, killing and lynching with apparent impunity.
Secondly, as I wrote back in 2006, Hindu supremacist organisations in the UK have built a solid base in Britain. Among these is the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the overseas wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the ideological heart of the Hindu right. The RSS's second Sarsanghchalak – or supreme leader – Golwalkar, saw Hitler's treatment of Jews as a model of 'race pride', which India should emulate, and believed that Dalits should see their 'ascribed task' of cleaning toilets and sewers by hand as a 'selfless service' and a form of worship.
The HSS was investigated for hate speech and, in a meaningless gesture, asked by the Charity Commissioner to keep away from the RSS, its parent body. At the same time, the RSS itself is considered so respectable in Britain that Treasury minister Priti Patel has openly expressed her admiration for it and MPs like Bob Blackman MP for Harrow East have been delighted to share platforms with RSS leaders at HSS events.
Since Narendra Modi came to power in India, a plethora of right-wing Hindu organisations – the Hindu Forum of Britain, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the National Hindu students' Forum UK, among others – have dug their tentacles even deeper into Indian communities. These groups, together with MPs like Blackman and a very small number of academics like Prakash Shah, Reader in Law at QMUL, have come together to lobby against the law.
“I was not allowed to go into the kitchen or to touch food because I was considered impure…"
Blackman's views appear to rest on the fact that he depends on the bank of votes created by right-wing Hindu organisations in Harrow East. So powerful is this constituency that columnists in papers like the widely read Asian Voice can tell Labour MPs they will no longer be receiving votes, because Labour is a party whose “elected MPs attack the land of my forefathers, India'’. In other words, they will brook no criticism of Narendra Modi's government, not on human rights, nor anything else. This may be why Blackman claims, with a confident disregard for logic, that legislation outlawing caste is likely to cause segregation.
As for Prakash Shah, he is quite open about his political position. He recently invited Makarand Paranjape, an extreme-right Hindu ideologue and Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi to speak at QMUL, and listened approvingly while Paranjape heaped scorn on his Dalit students. In his book 'Against Caste in British Law', Shah describes the legislation as a 'threat to Indian businesses and to the well-being and existence of the Indian communities' which would cause distress and create “a climate of intimidation”.
Shah's melodramatic language suggests that what is at stake here is not just the legislation outlawing caste discrimination, but a demonstration of the power of right-wing Hindu forces in Britain and their ability to get their own way.
Post-Brexit, this is also a time when Theresa May is seeking trade deals with India, and wanting to keep on good terms with the Indian CEOs in possession of multinational empires whose names frequently appear on UK ‘rich lists’ – men like Swraj Paul, Anil Agarwal and Laxmi Mittal who are full of adulation for Narendra Modi.
Like them she is not interested in Modi's abysmal human rights record or his ominous silences in the face of atrocities like the burning alive of two young Dalit children in their homes by 'upper castes' on the outskirts of Delhi. May is unlikely to want to rock the Hindu right's boat by supporting legislation that outlaws caste. But the campaigners say due process is on their side. “It will be a struggle,” says Satpal Muman, “but we are ready for it. We won't give up”.
Georgia has long been an oasis for dissidents from neighbouring Azerbaijan. But with Baku investing in its western neighbour at record levels, are they still safe?
MeydanTV, was denied entry to Georgia. He flew back to Berlin, perplexed.“I felt like trash,” says Jamal Ali. Last month Ali, a rapper and producer for Azerbaijani independent media outlet
MeydanTV has few friends in authoritarian Azerbaijan, where many of its writers and editors have been harassed and imprisoned by the authorities. Ali is just one example: after performing at an opposition rally in 2012, he was sent to prison for ten days, where he was tortured. Upon release, Ali fled to Germany. He’s lived there ever since, while his family remain in Azerbaijan, where they face reprisals from the authorities.
Ali’s experience at the Georgian border was unexpected — several of his colleagues live and work in the Georgian capital. In fact, over the past two decades, Tbilisi has become something of an oasis for Azerbaijani activists and independent journalists seeking safety. And after Ali’s run-in with the Georgian authorities, they’ve started to wonder whether the stakes are getting higher.
Azerbaijani dissidents suspect that Ali’s detention at Tbilisi airport was orchestrated by the Azerbaijani authorities, though they probably expected a little more from their Georgian partners.
In an article published recently by pro-regime website Haqqin.az, Eynulla Fatullayev, a former prisoner of conscience turned pro-government journalist, criticised the Georgian authorities for not extraditing Ali back to Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Fatullayev also condemned Georgia for creating the conditions for an “anti-Azerbaijani nucleus" to flourish in the heart of Tbilisi. Azerbaijani oppositionists, he concluded, were uniting in Georgia to overthrow his country’s ruling government.
Given Azerbaijan’s autocratic neighbourhood — the country borders Iran, Russia and Armenia (with which Baku is still technically at war) — Georgia is the obvious destination for people in Ali’s situation. Azerbaijanis enjoy visa-free travel to Georgia. They’re even able to stay there for 12 months. Economic and cultural links between the two South Caucasus states are booming, and the journey between Baku and Tbilisi isn’t so arduous.
Indeed, Georgia has a long history of openness towards Azerbaijanis who are unwelcome at home. It was in Tbilisi, not Baku, where Azerbaijani dissident intellectuals declared the independence of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic on 28 May 1918.
After the Soviet Union collapsed and the Caucasus region descended into conflict, Tbilisi again became an oasis for Azerbaijani dissidents, who fled to Georgia in two waves as an authoritarian regime took power in Baku. The first came after October 2003, when Ilham Aliyev followed his late father Heydar in becoming president, following an election widely regarded as fraudulent.
The aftermath of this sham vote saw a wave of politically-motivated arrests, further prompting Azerbaijanis to flee west — they assumed they could breathe more easily in a place like Georgia. This coincided with Georgia’s democratic reforms after the Rose Revolution of 2003, which saw pro-western, reformist president Mikheil Saakashvili come to power. Saakashvili’s rebranding of Georgia appealed to desperate Azerbaijani dissidents, and young intellectuals such as novelist Seymur Baycan, journalist Gunel Movlud and composer Elmir Mirzoyev packed their bags and relocated there.
The second wave started in March 2013, a month which saw an intense crackdown on dissent in Azerbaijan. Repressions began after the non-parliamentary opposition held rallies in January and March under the slogan “Stop Killing Our Soldiers”, in reference to the non-combat deaths of Azerbaijani conscripts. The rally reflected the pent-up rage of ordinary people, and grew into the largest such event since 2005, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest rigged parliamentary elections. After these scenes, the authorities soon banned all opposition rallies.
In response, Azerbaijan’s authorities detained dozens of young activists, including members of the N!DA movement. Again, some of them headed to Georgia, and to safety.
Most agree that the unprecedented pressure from the Azerbaijani government on dissidents in Georgia began in late 2014. This was likely the result of an influx of oil money, prompting the overconfident authorities in Azerbaijan to behave more boldly. Efgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist who has taken refuge in Georgia, points to the close strategic relationship developed between Ilham Aliyev and Mikheil Saakashvili.
During the last six months of Saakashvili’s presidency, Azerbaijan’s Milli Shura (National Council of Democratic Forces) called for a summit in Tbilisi, which Saakashvili later banned, with the cryptic justification that “political stability in Azerbaijan necessitates the political stability of Georgia.”
After Saakashvili’s defeat in 2012, the opposition Georgian Dream (GD) formed a coalition government. Azerbaijani dissidents felt more secure in moving to Georgia, given that some of GD’s coalition partners were sympathetic to the plight of activists from Azerbaijan’s beleaguered opposition.
These hopes, however, were unfounded. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire mastermind behind the Georgian Dream coalition (and accused by some of a pro-Russian orientation), pushed reform plans to one side. Although ahead of its neighbours, the state of democracy and human rights deteriorated under Ivanishvili, and the flourishing economy came first. Naturally, Azerbaijan, with its extensive oil and gas resources, became Georgia’s most important partner.
Ali isn’t the only Azerbaijani dissident who has faced difficulties in Georgia. Gulnur Kazimova, a former journalist for Radio Liberty (which was blocked by court order in Azerbaijan earlier this month), had to flee the city of Ganja with her husband and children in December 2014 after receiving a tip-off that the police were coming to arrest her.
It’s now three years since Gulnur relocated to Tbilisi, over which time she’s changed flats 11 times after warnings from Tbilisi’s Human Rights House that she and her family were under threat. “After each and every move, we would run into the same security concerns. We were mostly worried for our children,” Kazimova tells me. “Though we later understood that running away was not a solution and that we have to try and not live in fear.” Kazimova has returned to journalism, and now writes about the problems ethnic Azerbaijanis face in Georgia.
Even in Tbilisi, she faces problems. But here it’s the Georgian police who won’t leave Kazimova alone. The most disturbing incident came last May, when a black Toyota car followed Kazimova along a street in Old Tbilisi. Its occupant was photographing Kazimova and her husband.
“The surveillance was so obvious that my husband and I took a photo of the car and went straight to the police,” Kazimova says, adding that she knows the Azerbaijani authorities will not relent in their pursuit. The Georgian police launched an investigation into the incident, which lasted for three months.
Although the results of the investigation did not confirm targeted surveillance of Kazimova and her family, she did mention that a policeman at Tbilisi’s Ortachala police station told her that she wasn’t being followed by SOCAR employees or the Azerbaijani authorities, but “by Georgia’s intelligence service.”
Baku has one major lever of influence over Georgia. It’s called SOCAR, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic.
Last year, SOCAR increased natural gas supplies to Georgia by 50m cubic metres, in order to further “mutually beneficial cooperation in the future." This April, a new agreement was signed between Tbilisi and Baku that will allow for a supply of 2,347 billion cubic metres of Azeri gas to Georgia. This figure constitutes almost 90% of the 2,457 billion cubic metres of natural gas imported to Georgia in total.
This new agreement automatically precludes any potential deal with Gazprom, which is considered by the Georgian opposition and civil society as a threat to the nation’s energy security in the region. According to Georgia’s minister of energy Kakha Kaladze, much of the country’s electricity demand from April onwards is to be provided for with Azerbaijani gas.
Georgia needs Azerbaijani gas, and Azerbaijan needs Georgia as a conduit for exporting fossil fuels to the west
SOCAR first came to the Georgian market as SOCAR Georgian Petroleum in 2006. From 2007 onwards, SOCAR started to import gas to Georgia and dealt with Georgia’s gas distribution networks by establishing another subsidiary, called SOCAR Georgia Gas. It later constructed a Black Sea terminal and in May 2008 opened a new export terminal on the coast at Kulevi. In other words, SOCAR has established its business in three separate areas and in recent years, SOCAR has even become the largest single taxpayer in Georgia.
Georgia needs Azerbaijani gas, and Azerbaijan needs Georgia as a conduit for exporting fossil fuels to the west. Georgia is Azerbaijan’s closest link to international markets, such as Turkey and the EU. As economist Ilham Shaban puts it: “Azerbaijan is very interested in gaining a strategic foothold in Georgia, for its own economic well-being.”
But SOCAR is more than an energy giant, it’s also a philanthropist, increasing the country’s prestige among the country’s ethnic Azerbaijanis, one of the country’s major minority groups, and Georgians alike. “All of these processes are controlled by the Georgian government," says Zohrab Ismail, an Azerbaijani economist, adding that Tbilisi is eager to win the good graces of foreign investors.
This seems to be having a chilling effect on the welcome Georgia has extended to Azerbaijani dissidents in the past. For instance, though the Georgian state did not offer any explanation on the refusal to admit Jamal Ali, it is assumed that his entrance to Georgia was denied due to his professional activities — particularly his latest critical report on how Azerbaijan’s national oil company SOCAR supplied free gas to the churches of Tbilisi.
Dashgin Agalarli is sure that the Georgian authorities are in close collaboration with Azerbaijan’s intelligence services. An opposition activist and member of Azerbaijan’s Musavat party, Agalarli is wanted at home and was jailed in Georgia for six months (although the Georgian Dream coalition government never extradited him back to Baku.)
Agalarli was arrested by Interpol while crossing the border from Turkey to Georgia, after an Azerbaijani court found him guilty of tax evasion and issued a call for his arrest on 31 October. Apart from a handful of Middle Eastern countries, Georgia was the only country Agalarli could reach without needing a visa.
Georgian authorities have refused to grant Agalarli residency, and on 21 March told him to leave the country within a month. Although Agalarli is challenging the ruling and still remains in Tbilisi, the outlook remains uncertain. “Unless something changes, he’ll most probably be deported,” says Efgan Mukhtarli, another Azeri journalist who has taken shelter in Georgia. The court decision, Mukhtarli adds, was clearly “politically rather than legally motivated.”
So far, no Georgian government official has explained exactly what danger Agalarli and Mustafayeva pose to the country’s national security
Mukhtarli suggests that if Agalarli is extradited to Baku, he could face the same fate as Mehman Qalandarov, an Azerbaijani blogger who was found dead in his prison cell on 28 April. Qalandarov, who was in a pre-trial detention in Baku, had fled to Tbilisi in the summer of 2016 and helped organise various protests in Georgia against the Aliyev regime. He returned to Baku because of financial difficulties. “One political dissident who had a Tbilisi past is already dead,” Mukhtarli warns, worrying that anybody listed in the Haqqin.az article written by Fatullayev could be in the same boat.
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has commented on the claims made in the Haqqin.az article, promising to “study the issue closely” and stressing the close strategic partnership between Baku and Tbilisi. “This is the first time the Georgian government has officially expressed their views about our presence here,” says Mukhtarli. He adds that in previous years, Tbilisi was cautious and preferred communicating with the Azerbaijani dissident community via various non-governmental organisations.
Natia Tavberidze, the coordinator of Human Rights House in Tbilisi, doesn’t believe that the situation is “critical”. She says her organisation continues to support Azerbaijani activists in exile, and has had no run-ins with Georgian officialdom so far.
Mukhtarli’s wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, a journalist, is also “alarmed”. In September 2016, Mustafayeva’s application for residence in Georgia was turned down. She told me that five days before the official rejection, she was called in to the Georgian interior ministry’s department of terrorism and anti-corruption for questioning. “My residence permission request lay on the table with some handwritten notes in Georgian added to it. I was asked about the reason of my arrival and my activities in Georgia,” recalls Mustafayeva, adding that her official rejection letter stated that she “pose[d] a danger to the state security and public safety of Georgia.”
“The way my spouse was recently questioned in Azerbaijan once again confirmed my suspicions that personal information about human rights activists and journalists is being transferred to the Azerbaijani authorities,” Agalarli says.
So far, no Georgian government official has explained exactly what danger Agalarli and Mustafayeva pose to the country’s national security. Both deny carrying out any terrorist activities or attempting to topple any government. “For the second time in our lives, we’re under government pressure. I just can’t understand it,” sighs Agalarli, adding that he regrets seeing Georgia as a safe haven. In Mustafayeva’s words, it feels worse than being jailed.
Although Georgia has a visa-free regime with Azerbaijan, administrative registration and residency potentially pose hurdles for those seeking to put down roots in Tbilisi. Enrolling children into a Georgian school, or applying for a visa for a third country, require a residence permit. But some are able to settle, if not always thrive, in Georgia.
According to Tbilisi-based Azerbaijani lawyer Emin Aslan, it’s usually not too difficult to get an official residence permit. “Though those who publicly oppose the Azerbaijani government in opposition rallies outside the embassy might run into some problems on Baku’s request,” says Aslan, adding that harassment of activists likely increases as a result of such campaigns.
If things heat up in Tbilisi, Azerbaijani dissidents could pack their bags again, using Georgia as a transit point to move to a third country
Indeed, the Azerbaijani government does not want to see its neighbour to the west become a hub for its critics. Likewise, the Georgian Dream government wants to keep the good graces of its regional partner and key energy supplier. And perhaps the Georgian authorities, dealing with their own problems of inequality and poverty, want to avoid having more residents to provide for — especially those who may prove a political nuisance.
If things heat up in Tbilisi, Azerbaijani dissidents could pack their bags again, using Georgia as a transit point to move to a third country — most likely the Czech Republic or Germany, which both host established communities of Azerbaijani dissidents.
Sergey Rumyantsev, a sociologist and expert on Azerbaijani politics based in Berlin, is sure that Baku will keep putting pressure on the Georgian government in the months to come. “Georgian efforts to get rid of their annoying new visitors could be undertaken very delicately, but they’ll still serve the purpose of decreasing the opposition to the Aliyev regime in Georgia,” he concludes. However, Rumyantsev adds that the US embassy and EU probably play a role here, mitigating pressure on Azerbaijani dissidents by calling on Tbilisi to honour its lofty democratic values.
After his close shave, Jamal Ali worries that Tbilisi may be betraying those values. As each year passes, the Aliyev regime becomes more vicious in its crackdown on dissidents in Azerbaijan. And given the geopolitical realities of the South Caucasus, there’s no way out for them except via Georgia.
This is the anonymised true story of the premature death of one women's organisation. Its experience is not unique, and we must do better.
When Tendai* started Humura, an organisation fighting violence against women, she had passion but no financial resources, no staff, no office, no computer. As a young, first-year teacher, she had started a discussion group with students on issues of sex and sexuality and in the process identified many cases of sexual violence. She was determined to take action: other women should not suffer the way she did when, at the age of 16, she was raped by a close relative and had no one to tell.
She worked day and night, weekends and holidays to organise girls to expose and confront such violence. She made allies and resigned from her teaching job to start Humura. They had no formal systems, structures, plans, budgets or cars. They were a team, bound by trust and a shared vision. They built a critical mass of grassroots, community and institutional supporters. They even invaded homes and rescued young women and girls married off as minors without their consent.
A skilled orator, Tendai was in the limelight. She was advised to register as an NGO and money poured in from all kinds of funders. Huge cars were bought, consultants were hired, volunteers were dismissed, offices were built and soon there was an empire. Tendai acquired a new title: ‘Executive Director.’ She moved from her humble house to a posh suburb of electric fences and guard dogs. She began demanding business class tickets.
People danced to keep their jobs and chiefs in rural areas sang Tendai's praises in the hope of getting crumbs from her table. Donors paraded her from one country to the next showing off their ‘best practice.’ She shared platforms with the high and mighty. Any conference on violence against women was incomplete without her. But all was not well. Control, dominance and exclusion had taken over and the organisation's staff felt disempowered. Humura was losing its humanity.
People danced to keep their jobs... control, dominance and exclusion had taken over...
It was split into pieces: people, relationships, different aspects of the work. The board was chaired a patriarchal bishop. Staff whispered instead of talking; they hardly listened to or looked directly at each other, or the ‘clients’ who came to report violence. Praising the Director won you salary increases and other perks. A small group surrounded Tendai armed with malice, gossip, lies and desire for money, power and promotion.
Most lost confidence and security. Whistleblowers became outcasts. The organisation became a static entity contradicting the very values it stood for. No one knew how to move forward and eventually they let go and the once thriving Humura collapsed completely.
This is the true – but anonymised – story of the premature death of one women's organisation. But this group's experience is not unique and the questions it poses challenge us all: What kind of culture is needed inside organisations working to end gender-based violence?
Groups fighting violence against women must be mindful and watchful of drivers of oppression and violence within their own organisations too. All consultants, volunteers and even funders should be oriented in the organisation's unambiguous core values, stated clearly and followed with courage.
Rituals are important. Organisations should routinely reflect: are the group's stated values actually guiding its work? Power must be checked at all times and boring and draining routine work must be tackled too. The organisation's fire must be constantly tended to so that everyone remains engaged and energised and the group can be a nurturing place for all.
Organisations fighting violence against women must never become bureaucratic or doctrinaire. They should commit time and other resources to understanding themselves and how they see and act in the world. A strong governance board, instead of ‘yes’ people who sign blank cheques, is essential. Critical questions must be asked, and often.
Groups fighting gender-based violence must also feed their own souls, so that they have something to share with others.
Do systems and structures allow for individual staff and activists to share their own stories? Can individuals who have experienced violence share this in a trustful and supportive environment? Can one state her position even if it contradicts that of her superiors? Are people silent for fear of offending each other? Do they avoid putting difficult issues on the table in the process?
Is there room to discuss power dynamics related to age, sexual orientation, patriarchy, or location? What are the undiscussable issues? Is there room for co-creation, for harvesting each person’s talents and skills and ensuring their voices are heard and respected? Are team members encouraged to set milestones and personal development goals? How do they develop their skills?
Groups fighting gender-based violence must also feed their own souls, so that they have something to share with others. Organisations should create and institutionalise practices that support well-being and inclusiveness by planning and budgeting for them. This is crucial for our work today – and our ability to withstand withering and rusting tomorrow.
* Names have been changed to provide anonymity.
يبحث موقع openDemocracy عن مشاركين لمنتدى الشرق الأوسط في مصر.
openDemocracy is looking for participants for the Middle East Forum for Egypt.
The Middle East Forum is a project that encourages emerging young voices to express themselves, exchange views and be heard. The project provides participants with a series of workshops to develop writing skills, media presence, and digital security as well as a free discussion space where they have the capacity to debate constructively. Participants in the forum host speakers, acquire skills, share knowledge, and give feedback to one another.
We are currently looking for 7 participants in Egypt to join the project. If you are interested in participating in this project and developing your journalistic skills read the information below and send in your application.
We expect that each participant will have the opportunity to achieve the following benefits:
In addition to these general expectations, the participant will also be required to meet the following requirements during the program:
You can apply for the position if you fall under any of the following:
Deadline for applicaiton: June 1st.
منتدى الشرق الأوسط هو مشروع يشجّع الأجيال الصاعدة الشابّة على التعبير عن نفسها وتبادل الآراء وإيصال صوتها. يقدّم المشروع للمشاركين سلسلة من ورش العمل لتطوير مهاراتهم في الكتابة والحضور الإعلامي والأمن الرقمي كما يوفّر المشروع فضاء للمناقشات يمنح المشاركين فرصة التحاور بطريقة بنّاءة. يستضيف المشاركون في المنتدى متحدثين ويكتسبون مهارات ويتشاركون المعلومات ويعبّرون عن رأيهم بعمل زملائهم.
نبحث عن 7 مشتركين في مصر للانضمام إلى المشروع. إذا كنت مهتماً بالمشاركة في المشروع وبتطوير مهاراتك الصحفية، تابع القراءة وأرسل طلبك.
- خبرة مهنية
- معرفة عملية بالكتابة الصحفية والمناظرات ووسائل التواصل الاجتماعي
- تدريب يعزّز الإلمام بالأمن الرقمي والتطرّق إلى قضايا حقوق الإنسان
- إلمام إضافي وخبرة في كيفية تعزيز الحضور الصحفي على الإنترنت
- احترام السياسات والإجراءات والقواعد الملائمة للسلوك المحترف
- المحافظة على علاقة عمل دقيقة وموثوقة والالتزام بالجلسات المعيّنة وبعدد المقالات المتفق عليه
- التواصل بانتظام مع الميسّر، وتحديداً في المواقف التي يحتاج فيها المشترك إلى تعديل شروط علاقة العمل (مثلاً، تغيير موعد الحصة/الاجتماع)
- احترام السرية والآراء المعبّر عنها ضمن المجموعة
- أخذ المبادرة للتطوّع لمهمات أو مشاريع يجدها المشترك مثيرة للاهتمام
بالإضافة إلى المتطلبات العامة، يجب أن يلتزم المشترك بالتالي خلال البرنامج:
- الالتزام بحدّ أدنى من الحصص يساوي 12حصة
- تطوير علاقة عمل مع الميسّر للعب دور المرشد بشكل صحيح
- المشاركة بالمناظرات بنشاط والتركيز على المواضيع وكيفية تبلور النقاش
- تدوين الملاحظات فعلياً خلال كلّ حصة وتشاركها مع المجموعة
- الانخراط في تطوير فضاء إلكتروني للمناظرات والمشاركة فيه
- كتابة مقال واحد على الأقلّ في الشهر، استناداً إلى المناقشات التي حصلت
- فهم كيفية تحسين عملك وتطبيق ذلك
- تقييم ومراقبة نجاحك استناداً إلى اتساع نطاق تأثيرك
- التفكير في تجربتك والكتابة عنها لدى إتمام البرنامج
يمكنك التقدّم بطلب إذا:
- كنت بين سنّ 21 و30؛
- كنت تطمح لتصبح صحفياً أو مدوّناً؛
- لديك إطّلاع واسع على المنطقة المحددة للبرنامج؛
- تتكلّم وتكتب العربية و/أو الإنكليزية بطلاقة.
كيف يمكن التقدّم للتدريب؟
أرسِل نصّاً من 1000 – 1500 كلمة باللغة الإنكليزية أو العربية عن موضوع يهمّك، مثلاً حوار أثّر فيك أو مراقبتك لمحيطك أو حدث ثقافي أو مبادرة مثيرة للاهتمام أو وجهة نظرك حول سياسات المنطقة أو سبب اهتمامك بالمشاركة في البرنامج بالاضافة الى سيرتك.
الرجاء إرسال جميع الطلبات والمستندات المرتبطة بها إلى موقع email@example.com والموعد النهائي للتقديم هو 4 يونيو