I was excited to read the position of Yaron Matras on ERI. I heard him talking a few weeks ago in Bucharest and I was pleasantly impressed. An academically argued paper on the good and bad parts of ERI was something that I was looking for especially after a ranting and at best confusing position of the ex-president of the ERTF.
It turned out to be another unpleasant surprise. The published text is plagued by manipulative, poorly argued and some offensive statements. The full text can be found here https://theconversation.com/eu-initiative-risks-turning-roma-into-entertainers-not-real-people-with-human-rights-40100
In italics fragments from the text.
Billed as a “Roma-led” initiative, its declared purpose is to sponsor Romani artistic cultural production, to raise awareness of the Roma and to advise the Council of Europe on policy in relation to Roma.
ERI is not billed as a Roma-led initiative. It is a Roma led initiative. “Declared purpose” suggest that there might be some other purpose and leads the reader from the start in thinking that ERI is something bad without bringing any (logical) argument why is it so.
Western governments in particular reacted sceptically when the ERI was first announced in April 2014, as did the ERTF and the Romani Study Network.
Not all western governments reacted. Ignored is also that a good number of governments including at least one western government (Belgium) were positive. The ERTF and Romani Study Network have only to lose (influence, funding, visibility) if ERI becomes a success therefore their position risks to be seen as biased if not properly argued. Moreover, there were many western governments that reacted against or skeptically (UK, Spain, Netherlands, France, Italy, Belgium) when the first proposal for the establishment of ERTF came about.
Academics were worried that ERI’s declared ambition to “license research and teaching on Roma” would allow a circle of appointed individuals to interfere with the content of research and so potentially with academic freedom.
The correct statement should read I(Yaron Matras) and (other 3, 4, 5…), are worried. There are hundreds if not thousands of academics that could claim their opinion on ERI would be relevant. The overwhelming majority of those do not know anything about ERI therefore would be hard to argue that they are worried about its ambitions.
Manipulative and offensive statement.
This concern was amplified by the fact that those individuals, who were at the time known to be part of the circle of designated leaders of ERI, issued an overt challenge to established academic research in Romani studies, claiming that it lacked representation from scholars of Romani ancestry and was therefore inherently biased.
There is no logical link between the fact that there is a valid concern regarding institutional racism among academic outlets that are funded (some heavily) for Roma work and dominated by non- Roma and the establishment of ERI. The fact that Yaron Matras automatically assumes that “ those individuals…part of the designated leaders of ERI” will interfere with academic freedom is a worrisome and rather offensive statement that could be interpreted as a sign of racism.
Manipulative and offensive statement
In a well-choreographed effort to pre-empt the critics, the second attempt to launch ERI was announced on March 26, 2015 in a joint online commentary from the Council of Europe’s secretary-general Thorbjørn Jagland and George Soros.
It is illogical and therefore it needs a rock solid proof to back up the statement that two of the best known people in the world decided to silence the critics ( almost unknown in comparison) by publishing an article in a newspaper that is part of the Economist group – one of the most respectable publishing group there is. This proof is missing.
The public statement, which caught key advisers to the secretary-general by surprise, came just one week before a scheduled discussion on the topic at the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly.
It is irrelevant if there were some of the many key advisers caught by surprise (moreover, this is once again a statement impossible to prove) . What would have been relevant to include in order to support such a statement is if their surprise should matter, why so and what is wrong with it. Neither one of these issues are addressed by Yaron. What seems to be also ignored is that any decision of a leader of a huge organization has a very high potential to surprise a few.
Manipulative, contradictory and offensive statement
In the very same week, it was announced that German parliamentarian Phillip Missfelder – who had tabled a motion on ERI at the Council of Europe back in March 2014, had been appointed as rapporteur on Roma for the parliamentary assembly, thus ensuring that the ERI would command support from all sides.
Yaron assumes that the parliamentary assembly is stupid enough to be manipulated to support ERI because of Missfelder’s appointment as a rapporteur. There is nothing in the text that will explain why Matras thinks that Missfilder will command support from all sides.
Manipulative and possibly offensive
As for the concept itself, while Council of Europe officials continue to insist in informal conversations that the recruitment process for ERI’s management will be open and transparent, OSF has made it quite clear that it has a fixed idea as to who would run the institute. It hints at an alliance which in fact includes individuals who have been referring to themselves in discussions with Council of Europe officials as “the Roma elite”.
Some of them have a track record of rising up against both grassroots representatives of Roma, accusing them of everything from corruption to misogyny, and against academic experts in Romani studies, accusing them of a power monopoly.
Informal conversations are again something that can not be proved. Hinting at an alliance contradicts the sentence just before it which reads that the OSF made it quite clear. Using quotes for “Roma elites” might be interpreted as offensive it has been in the case of other minorities. Some of them is an ambiguous terminology that leaves open the imagination of the reader. The author implies that rising up against corruption and misogyny within Romani leadership or contesting academic experts in Romani study disqualifies people from being Roma elites. This is a terribly poorly thought statement coming from an academic expert.
Overall ERI appears so far to be a conflation of financial muscle and top-down political power, pitched as a way of handing the power over the dissemination of knowledge on Roma to those who self-identify as Roma.
Again there is nothing that proves this statement. The fact that something appears to be in a certain way to Yaron Matras still needs to be proven by arguments. The author offers none.
Such an initiative risks rupturing the respect that the Council of Europe commands as the leading European institution on human rights – and one that is governed by consensus rather than muscle.
Again there is no argument that can back up the statement above. The Council of Europe risks also to be lead by aliens together with ISIS but as long as there is no good enough argument that can prove this risk there will be very few that will take it seriously.
Manipulative and possibly offensive
It also risks using Roma as tokenistic representatives to legitimise an agenda that has become driven primarily by the need to maintain contracts for funded service interventions. Worse, it risks delivering a setback to the efforts of the past two decades which aimed to highlight the plight of the Roma as a human rights issue by foregrounding the more popular image of Gypsies as entertainers, best represented by the romantic imagery in the joint commentary by Jagland and Soros.
There is always a risk for using Roma as whatever. A respected academic needs to prove that such a risk is something that makes sense to be taken in account. It is possibly offensive to talk about the efforts to highlight the plight of Roma ( a good number of those efforts could be argued to have been lead exactly by the same “Roma elites” Yaron attacks ) as a way to denigrate the initiative of Jagland and Soros.
Manipulative, offensive and possibly racist
Finally, by putting forward the notion that knowledge on Roma should be the exclusive property of those who self-identify as Roma, it jeopardises the freedom of academics to engage in such studies on the basis of their qualifications and expertise. This means that non-Romani academics whose research might bring them to different conclusions than those that ERI prefers to showcase, might find themselves accused of prejudice and colonialism.
There is nothing in the concept paper, article in the European Voice or anywhere else I looked regarding of ERI to support this statement : that knowledge on Roma should be the exclusive property of those who self-identify as Roma. Using a false statement to argument an imagined complot to jeopardise the freedom of academics to engage in such studies on the basis of their qualifications and expertise is offensive and considering the final of the statement it might also be perceived as racist.
If this happens, it will discourage many from engaging in the study of Romani culture – and will thereby isolate Romani studies from mainstream academia and confine it to a sector that is politically managed.
It could happen that the sun will die tomorrow despite overwhelming proof that this is rather impossible and therefore highly speculative. Arguing that the establishment of ERI will lead to an isolation of Romani study from mainstream academia is alsohighly speculative. It is also in my opinion intellectually dishonest.
*this is not an article in support of ERI or those that lobby for it. I have a neutral position about it and no interest whatsoever to be part of the team that will manage the institute. I also think there is a very important role to play by academics such as Yaron Matras in the Romani movement ( judging on his academic work on linguistics and not on this article). I do know that some of my articles lack some very much the needed proofs. Working on it – I do not see myself yet neither an academic nor an intellectual.