The Derg

© 2009 by Werner Cohn

Lenin had famously declared that action without theory is blind, that theory without action is sterile.    Of course we were not Bolsheviks.   We were modern men, and we knew in the deepest possible sense not only about Lenin but also about Norbert Wiener, the father of modern computing. But the Derg had studied most particularly and internalized the old Bolshevik's dicta.   We were not a debating society devoted to complaining about the ills of the world.   Nor were we a bunch of anarchists throwing bombs.   We did what needed to be done, and our scientific research determined, in advance, what was efficacious.   Those were bed-rock principles: theory, action, efficacy.

But questions of power occupied us at the beginning and never ceased to be troublesome.    Who will make the day-to-day decisions ?   Obviously, we agreed from the word go that there would be no dictator;   "derg" means committee, collective decision.   Then:   just whom would we solicit as applicant ? Whom to solicit, whom to accept, as applicant, as co-worker, as supplier ?   Scores of decisions needed to be made, often within minutes.

Our first planning meetings took place in December of 2005.

Today I can't reconstruct just how, during the course of 2006, Erika temporarily became our vozhd , our boss.   We all had our Marxist backgrounds, more or less, but nobody had ever been an admirer of Stalin, the historical "vozhd."   Still, vozhd it was, and Erika evolved into the role as if by natural law.    She was always there, she never seemed to take time off.   She brooked no disagreement let alone opposition.   True, she always needed help on the computer (without this machine there could scarcely have been a Derg even then), but at first we overlooked this fault in her.   She had one or another of us work the keyboard twenty-four seven, never failing to intimate that the mechanical aspects of the work were beneath her.

But by the end of 2006, our internal discussions became languid, and listening to Erika and her various snobberies had become tiresome.   Somewhere along the line Erika had decided on what she called a lesbian lifestyle. The Derg interested her less and less and our interest in her came to an end.

Then Bernie showed up.   Years earlier Erika had worked for Bernie in an unsuccessful effort to build, before Madoff, a Madoffian mutual funds empire in Switzerland.    In those years Erika had still been energetically heterosexual, with Bernie, equally energetic, devoting himself to promiscuity.   So the two had gotten on well, at the time.   In other words, Bernie came to us with the recommendation of what turned out to be his predecessor as vozhd.

Very soon Bernie, now vozhd, laid   it down:   without first-class software no Derg.   We understood this immediately, especially since, unlike Erika,   Bernie could not only talk but he could also make the computer do what we needed done.   I believe that to this day we remain the only ones to utilize Leninist-Wienerite principles for computer analysis.   Who else has anything like our Efficacy function ?   Even now, when things have changed so much again, I still look back in admiration to the months that Bernie was our vozhd.

Now it was Bruno Halk who became our first really important applicant in those days, and the way we handled his case exemplifies, or so we thought, our principle of unity-of-deed-and-action.

Bruno's was not an easy case. Among his other ticks, Bruno insisted on being called Dr. Halk, even when off campus.   Such mannerisms only added to his problems, but Bruno did not seem to notice.   His problems were numerous and real enough, but, briefly, they could be summarized as follows:   Draw University, where he had been teaching as Associate Professor for more than twelve years, would not promote him to Full Professor.   Draw University !   It wasn't Harvard, it wasn't even Ohio State, and still they could not promote him ?

Bruno had done some graduate work at Harvard and he was fond of sprinkling his conversation with references to this fact.   But he told Bernie (as Bernie reported to us at the initial Derg meeting that was devoted to the case) that he, Bruno, had it up to here, really, that he, who had been an intimate of Antonio Antonini at Harvard, that he, Bruno Halk, was stuck, stuck, stuck, being an Associate at, of all places, Draw University.

Could the Derg help, Bernie said Bruno wanted to know.   And so we decided that yes, we may indeed be able to help, and Bernie was assured by all of us that we were with him, with Bruno and with Bernie, our vozhd Bernie, and we would start, as Bernie put it, to get the baseball rolling.   All this of course referred to our willingness to open a file, a preliminary consideration.

Bernie himself opened Bruno's file on the Derg's computer..


Bernie asked me to ascertain at least some of the facts surrounding the promotion story.    Here is what I learned from talking to some seven informants:

Humanistic Philosophy - HP -- was one of Draw University's more idiosyncratic departments.   Does any other institution of higher learning, reputable or otherwise, have anything like that ?   But HP's Senior Promotion Committee functioned in conventional ways:   all full professors (generally about a dozen) were voting members and could participate in the procedures that decided whom, among the qualified Associates, to recommend to Draw's higher authorities for promotion to Full.   But there was procedural provision that was unusual:   two or more negative votes could veto any decision.

In 1999, again in 2000, and in six more years to follow, the Committee duly considered the case of Associate Professor Bruno Halk.   Each time there was a majority that favored his promotion, but each time a minority objected and thus vetoed the recommendation.   Halk's best score came in 2001, when the vote in his favor was ten to two.   In the other years there were always at least three dissenters.   While the details of the vote - how many for, how many against, who voted how -- were in principle secret, Halk's allies never failed to inform him how each colleague had voted.   Halk, and his allies, were clear that the key person in the hold-out was no other than the founding member and perennial chair of the Department:   Alistair Holderbrook.

The most jovial of men, Holderbrook.   Twenty years Halk's senior, the two had a great deal in common.   Both had been undergraduates at Henry College in Tennessee.   Both had graduate degrees from the University of Mississippi.   Both had taken summer courses at Harvard (and so each was, malicious tongues had it, "a Harvard man.")

But their differences were more striking.   Holderbrook was upright but immensely fat, Halk was spindly and bent like a string bean.   Holderbrook's classes were noisy, raucous, disorganized, aimless, with Holdenbrook himself often acting the class fool.   Halk's were dour, dry, contentious, dull.   Holderbrook had no need and no use for the computer-posted evaluations by his undergraduates, but the students reacted positively to the easy A's that he provided.   Halk on the other hand had good reason to fear such evaluations, and indeed he was generally hated.   The most common epithet was "martinet."

Where Holderbrook was a child of light, Halk was a son of darkness.   Holderbrook had been an eminent leader of the now-defunct League for Social Improvement that had urged same-sex marriage, free dental care for the poor, and protected bicycle paths, long before these issues had become commonplace.   Halk was a frowning man.   He was never nominated, nor did he ever volunteer, for any committee, on campus or off.   Holderbrook never gave trouble to any student, let alone any of the department's secretaries.   Halk, it seemed, was in a perpetual quarrel with the world, maybe even with himself.

And yet, and yet, when it came to the issue of the Halk promotion, it was Halderbrook whose skin turned purple, and his mouth, customarily voicing unrestrained merriment, bared teeth like a pitbull.   He said little in the debates, beyond the little formula that he had settled on when the matter had first come up and from which he never deviated:   "our colleague Halk cannot grasp the "Humanistic" that is in the very title of our Department."   He never added, nor did he ever subtract.   It was his formula, and at the same time it was Halk's fate, and it was settled as granite.


The whole point of the Derg was that we were not vulgar sicarios, vulgar killers for money.   We have never undertaken a liquidation without an exhaustive investigation of the issues.   Is it the appropriate remedy for the problem at hand ?   Will it do the job ?   Can it be done with appropriate assurance of safety for all involved ?

Obviously, the revenue question always arose.   Our operations were not cheap, and there had to be solid financial backing for each project.   We never asked the client to provide the finances all by himself, but we did expect him/her to be financially responsible with us.

The main problem in the Halk case turned on the question whether the remedy we could provide - liquidation of Halderbrook - would in and of itself solve the problem of Halk's blockage at Draw.   Our policy sub-committees had cleared the policy questions:   yes, Halk needed to be unblocked;   yes, Halderbrook was, humanly speaking, expendable.   And our operation/feasibility people had cleared the practical questions.   We had the personnel (in South America, as it happened); we had the finances;   we were satisfied that government law enforcement was not a significant deterrent factor in the operational matrix that had been prepared.

So we agonized over this question of whether Halderbrook's removal would indeed result in the desired unclogging.   We spent much more time on this question than, realistically, we could afford to spend on any one such item.   It was a foolish procrastination, but it did not last forever.   We completed all preliminary investigation on December 13 of 2007, a Thursday, and, following a Derg protocol that had been in place since we first organized, carried out the project within twelve hours.   Halderbrook died of a brief illness (as the local paper reported) on December 14.  


It was New Year's Day, 2008 and no replacement for Halderbrook as Chair of Humanistic Philosophy had yet been announced. We did not care about this one way or another, but we needed to follow HP news to verify that declogging had occurred, that is that Halk had indeed gotten his promotion as a result of our intervention.

Well, to make a long story short, declogging never did occur.   Halk was never promoted.  

On the last Derg meeting, held June 21, 2008, we did the responsible thing:   we disbanded.   We had acted in good faith all along.   We did the right things.   So when it turned out that the Efficacy function in our protocols was in fact, unreliable, we did what responsible operatives must do.   Each of us - we had twenty-three Actives by then - gave an undertaking to search for new areas of action.

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