Category Archives: Humanities & Social Sciences

Kosmopolito news

Nov 24th: Slavoj Žižek: Every state needs its own Balkan

Nov 20th: The Art of EU acronyms…

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The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Sunday afternoon – Some food for thought for the ‘elite education enthusiasts’ in Europe that always use the likes of Yale and Harvard as best practice examples!

“Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers” writes William Deresiewicz in his article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education“. The author makes quite some interesting points about what students learn in so called “elite universities”. Although he falls short of putting the problem in a wider social context, he nevertheless makes it clear that not everything is as perfect with these institutions as many (in Europe) want to believe.

It’s worth reading.

Russia: Corruption ‘price list’

Corruption in Russia is neither a new development nor a surprising one. However, now even President Putin as well as his likely successor Medvedev mentioned the corruption problem in recent public speeches. Of course it is a bit awkward for Putin to admit that corruption has been flourishing during his term in office, so it might be a rather tactical move to support his successor… and might even lay the ground for some politically motivated arrests later this year…

Coming back to the topic of corruption: According to the Eurasia Daily Monitor, two Russian research institutes, namely the Institute for Public Projects (INOP) and the Institute for Comparative Social Research (CESSI)  published a study called “The Nature and Structure of Corruption in Russia” which also contains a very interesting (and expensive!) ‘price list’ for all sorts of bribes:

According to the list, a place on a party list for a State Duma election cost $2 million-$5 million while getting legislation introduced in the Duma for consideration costs $250,000. For a state monopoly to win a “goszakaz,” or state purchase order, it must pay 20% of the order’s total value; for it to participate in a national project, it must pay 30-40% of the project’s total value; for it to get a line item in the federal budget, it must pay three percent of the project’s total value.

A large private company must pay $1 million-$5 million to get a license, prevent a license it has from getting revoked or get a competitor’s license revoked. For a large private company to win a “goszakaz,” it must pay a third of the order’s total value. For a small business to ensure that a transaction is carried out, it must pay a third of the transaction’s value; in order to get “help” from officials, a small business must pay 10% of its total profits. Getting customs duties reduced costs 30-50% of the sum on which the duties were assessed; getting tax arrears written off costs anywhere from $1000 to 30-50% of the sum of the arrears.

To get the Central Bank to begin examining documents costs a bank $500,000, while winning the right to transfer federal budget funds costs a bank five percent of the sum of the transfer. To win a case in a civil court or an arbitration court costs 10% of the awarded damages. To win a grant costs a charitable foundation 20-30% of the value of the grant. Finally, according to the INOP-CESSI study, to get a television “talking head” to criticize an official costs $20,000 a month.

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Rewriting history

What is happening at the moment? History (or better the interpretation of history) is more and more used to justify political actions. Nothing really new, but somehow two recent statements were not only shocking but also worrying:

First, the Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski used weird historic justifications for his negotiations at the EU summit last week:

We are only demanding one thing, that we get back what was taken from us. (…) If Poland had not had to live through the years of 1939-45, Poland would today be looking at the demographics of a country of 66 million.

Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin also discovered the benefits of relativism in order to justify his political agenda:

Concerning some problematic pages in our history — yes, they exist, as they do in the histories of all states. We have less than some countries. And ours are not as terrible as those of some others. (…) Yes, some pages in our history were horrible: We can think of the events beginning in 1937, and we should not forget them. But it wasn’t better in other countries — in fact, it was far more horrible.

Recently it became clear that Putin wants to use history and social science in a very ‘soviet way’. In order to reflect the apparent new strengh of Russia he wants to rewrite history to establish a new “national-patriotic ideology”. For a more detailled analysis read Pavel Felgenhauer article in the Eurasia Daily Monitor:

Putin told the teachers: “Many school books are written by people who work to get foreign grants. They dance to the polka that others have paid for. You understand? These books, regrettably, get into schools and universities.” Putin demanded new history textbooks that “make our citizens, especially the young, proud of their country” and reiterated “no one must be allowed to impose the feeling of guilt on us.”

Putin specifically noted that the history of World War II and Russia’s history after 1991 are wrongly interpreted and must be rewritten. Today Stalin has again been rehabilitated as a leader who made mistakes, but still secured victory over Nazi Germany. The 1990s — a decade when Russia was a freer state than at anytime before or since — today is demonized. The pro-Kremlin youth movement Molodaya Gvardia has announced it will be organizing marches in Yekaterinburg and other cities in support of Putin and against the regime’s critics under the slogan, “No return to the 1990s”

Putin’s personal paranoia and anti-Americanism seem to be growing and are increasingly dominating external and internal Russian politics.

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Another common history book?

History has always been (mis-) used in political debates. Basically, every social group constructs a set of historical ‘facts’ which then are used to justify any kind of ‘political action’. The constant repetition of these ‘facts’ create history. Usually different “versions” of history exist and most of the times these versions seem incompatible even though they might be two sides of the same coin.

A few weeks ago the German EU presidency proposed a common history book to be used in schools across the EU. Obviously the reactions were rather mixed. But, given the problem with (nationalized) history in general, such a book could truly help building a common identity and make people aware of different viewpoints. Moreover, it would reveal the different constructions of history .

Clearly, the existing Franco-German history textbook (that proved to be rather successful in practice) served as an example for this initiative. It might be still too optimistic to think of a common EU history book but why is it not possible to develop regional history books for a start? Or at least another book for two countries (preferably neighbors or “arch enemies”)…?

Certainly Eastern Europe would be an ideal choice for the next project, so I hope some education ministers in Eastern Europe read this article via eurotopics (btw a page I highly recommend!):

The hostilities between the countries of central Europe have arisen because the people there don’t understand the history and culture of their neighbours, writes Emese John, an MP for Hungary’s Liberals: “Our culture of remembrance is based exclusively on national history books. They bear the marks of the battles of the past thousand years and describe wars and conflicts solely from a national perspective. We live on such a tiny fragment of the world that our roots have become entwined and our branches touch each other, yet we still fail to see the common interests in our joint history – because we haven’t sought them… To discuss only matters pertaining to Hungary’s fate is narrow-minded and leads nowhere. One of the great matters of national interest today is how we can profit from this growing and increasingly fast world. It’s very important to confront the past, but to do this we need to borrow our neighbours’ glasses so we can see better.”

One cannot not communicate

Paul Watzlawick has died at the age of 85. I must say Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? was one of the books that really influenced my scientific (constructivist) thinking. The book basically examines how individual, social, scientific, and ideological “realities” are constructed and suggests that reality is invented rather than discovered.

Naturally this topic is too complex to explain in one blog post…But in case you are wondering what the whole thing is about, here the 5 axioms of Watzlawick’s thinking:

  1. One Cannot Not Communicate
  2. Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication.
  3. The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners communication procedures.
  4. Human communication involves both digital and analog modalities.
  5. Inter-human communication procedures are either symmetric or complementary, depending on whether the relationship of the partners is based on differences or parity.

Here is a more comprehensive overview.

Who is afraid of immigrants?

Everything you ever wanted to know about minorities, xenophobia and racism:”Who’s afraid of the Pirese?” via eurotopics:

According to recent surveys, an increasing number of Hungarians oppose the immigration of Pirese to their country. Never heard of them? The Pirese were invented by a research institute to compare the attitude of Hungarians towards existent minorities – Roma, Germans, Slovaks, Serbs – with their feelings towards a fictitious group. Gusztav Megyesi comments with sarcasm: “Surprisingly, the Pirese are most hated by the left and the prosperous inhabitants of western Hungary. They hate the Pirese mainly because they’ve never met one. Personal contact would perhaps help to reduce prejudices… Why hasn’t a politician come up with the idea of making his career by saving our country from the Pirese? ‘I have had all Pirese deported. I am the Hungarian people’s best hope. I want to rule,’ he could proclaim. And his political opponents wouldn’t be able to produce a single Pirese to refute these claims.”

I would really like to get hold of this survey!!! If anyone knows more about this please leave a comment or email me!