Category Archives: blogging

Registan’s Foust on Citizen Propagandists

I’ve been distracted by other projects lately (no, not watching the major-party infomercials in the U.S.) and by reading hard-to-blog chapters in books (but a good long excerpt will follow), so I’ve neglected to post a link to a blogpost by Joshua Foust on Registan (the first blog to link to mine, back in 2003) about the rise of citizen propagandists. I’ll cite just one paragraph from the full article, which is online at Columbia Journalism Review.

Non-official propaganda matters greatly, because while most bloggers issued shallow and predictable jeremiads about either the horrors of the “new Cold War” or the horrors of American-supported client states, there were some out there who were largely getting things right. Unfortunately, these sober voices were often drowned out by the overwhelming amount of citizen propagandists flooding the blogosphere. Nevertheless, they bear mentioning.

Foust’s article concerns the role of citizen propagandists in the current war between Russia and Georgia, since Registan’s regional focus is the Russian Near Abroad in Central Asia. But Foust’s thesis also applies to political blog spinmeisters, comment-thread propagators, and the lazy professional journalists who rely on their favorite blogs both to determine the newsworthiness and to frame the narratives of the “news” stories they bother to report (or not).

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Another Milestone, Another Rest Stop

I have now uploaded over 1,000 photos to my Flickr account, which I started over two years ago while on sabbatical in Japan. Now I’m headed back to Japan for one week of vacation, to Nagoya, where I might get the chance to attend a bit of the sumo tournament now underway there. I’ll also make a side trip to my old stomping ground in Kyoto, from my elementary school years there half a century ago. I recently managed by chance to get in touch with one of my elementary school classmates I haven’t seen in half a century. He was the son of an eccentric English bibliophile of some renown, not a missionary kid like most of my other classmates.

These days I’m spending more time posting photos on Flickr, and adding or refining content on Wikipedia, than posting text on this blog. In all three venues my approach is much more documentarian than artistic. Nearly everything turns into a little research project. That’s what keeps it fun for me.

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Barbarians at the Gate, Dinosaurs at the Dock

After watching a frustratingly clueless, “barbarians at the gate” NewHour segment on campaign smears (which apparently never existed before the Internet and were never spread by the old media) hosted by Gwen Ifill, who also hosts a conventional wisdom synchronization and self-congratulation session known as Washington Week (which I long ago gave up watching), I turned to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen’s PressThink for a more critical view of the old media and, by Jove, I found it in a post called Migration Point for the Press Tribe. Here’s how it begins.

We are early in the rise of semi-pro journalism, but well into the decline of an older way of life within the tribe of professional journalists. I call them a tribe because they share a culture and a sense of destiny, and because they think they own the press—that it’s theirs somehow because they dominate the practice.

The First Amendment says to all Americans: you have a right to publish what you know, to say what you think. That right used to be abstractly held. Now it is concretely held because the power to publish has been distributed to the population at large. Projects that cause people to exercise their right to a free press strengthen the press, whether or not these projects strengthen the professional journalist’s “hold” on the press.

The professional news tribe is in the midst of a great survival drama. It has over the last few years begun to realize that it cannot live any more on the ground it settled so successfully as the industrial purveyors of one-to-many, consensus-is-ours news. The land that newsroom people have been living on—also called their business model—no long supports their best work. So they have come to a reluctant point of realization: that to continue on, to keep the professional press going, the news tribe will have to migrate across the digital divide and re-settle itself on terra nova, new ground. Or as we sometimes call it, a new platform.

Migration—which is easily sentimentalized by Americans—is a community trauma. Pulling up stakes and leaving a familiar place is hard. Within the news tribe some people don’t want to go. These are the newsroom curmudgeons, a reactionary group. Others are in denial still, or they are quietly drifting away from journalism. Many are being shed as the tribe contracts and its economy convulses. A few are admitting that it’s time to panic.

And like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them, when to leave, where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life, and which parts were well adapted to the old world but may be unnecessary or a handicap in the new. They have to ask if what they know is portable. What life will be like across the digital sea is of course an unknown to the migrant. This creates an immediate crisis for the elders of the tribe, who have always known how to live.

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Applebaum Sour on Baker and Blogs

In a review entitled The Blog of War, Anne Applebaum first parodies then purees Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (via A&L Daily).

Baker never answers the questions that he asks. That is, he has not undertaken the historian’s task of hearing multiple arguments, listening to myriad explanations, looking at a wide range of evidence and then marshaling the evidence in order to draw a conclusion. He has not even carefully examined, as other historians have done, the various arguments about the aerial bombardment of civilians–the military tactic that appears to bother him most–to make a judicious argument against its use. Instead, he has used his license as a “novelist” to excuse himself from all of the tedious work of genuine knowledge. By way of research, he has read back issues of The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune, along with a notably limited group of other historical sources, all long familiar. From them, he has plucked bits of information, shards of the historical record that he finds compelling, or perhaps contrary to what he imagines to be the conventional wisdom–and left his readers to draw their own conclusions.

Here is where I should note, and gladly, that there are many legitimate ways to write history, even many avant-garde, non-linear, novelistic ways to write history, as the historiography of World War II itself well illustrates. There are, after all, political histories of that war, diplomatic histories, social histories, military histories, and intellectual histories, as well as histories written from American, British, Polish, Russian, German, Jewish, Japanese, Slovak, Estonian, Bulgarian, Chinese, and Italian points of view, among dozens of others. Besides all that, there are shelves of memoirs of victims and the children of victims, and perpetrators and the children of perpetrators. There are more purely literary accounts, such as W.G. Sebald’s semi-autobiographical novels, which mix fact and fiction but are nonetheless deeply committed to understanding precisely what happened and why….

But what Baker has produced is nothing like this, nothing like history. You cannot fault his scholarship, because aside from the process of accumulating a set of anecdotes, no scholarship has been conducted. Though the book purports to pronounce upon the international situation, all of Baker’s sources are in English. Almost all of the stories take place in America, Britain or Germany, as if the war was not really happening in Eastern Europe or Russia, let alone Indonesia and Singapore. He has not worked with many primary sources, other than a few memoirs, and he has not discovered any new material. He leaves out enormous chunks of the story. His description of the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, is limited to two sentences–Goering “ordered a thousand planes into Poland. There were dive-bombers over Danzig”–and he does not mention the Soviet invasion of Poland seventeen days later at all.

You cannot disagree with Baker’s argument, because no argument has been made. Baker does not build a case, he insinuates something, leaving the reader to guess what. My best paraphrase of his view goes like this: Churchill was a bully and a drunk. The Roosevelts were snobs and anti-Semites. Therefore they were not good people. Therefore their so-called “good” war must have been hypocritical. Therefore they could only have been fighting because they were in hock to the military industrial complex and they had a bloodthirsty fondness for bombing raids. Moreover, the Holocaust was in part a German response to British aggression, and the Japanese invasion of China was a response to Chinese aggression, and Britain’s very participation in the war was the result of Churchill’s aggression, especially his stubborn refusal to respond to Hitler’s “peace offensive.” Therefore the pacifists were right….

Perhaps, I wondered at one point, the whole book is a gigantic practical joke, a stunt intended to provoke scholars, anger Jews, infuriate Poles, and thereby create massive publicity for Nicholson Baker. And so my initial reaction to Human Smoke was to throw it across the room. Subsequently, I discovered that this reaction was very common, especially among practicing historians.

But then she segues into a sour diatribe on blogs and Wikipedia.

Unlike Nicholson Baker or the editors of Gawker, I cannot really supply an anecdote that will explain, in a hundred words or less, why I decided to pick up the book again and write this review. But a few days after finishing Human Smoke as well as Baker’s treatise on Wikipedia, I happened to be sitting with a group of writers, historians, and critics, all fellows at the American Academy in Berlin, talking about it. As fate would have it–Baker loves portentous and possibly significant coincidences, and who doesn’t?–we were sitting in a villa overlooking the Wannsee. Just across the lake, we could see the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, the place where, in 1942, the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Had the drunken Churchill and the anti-Semite Roosevelt not decided to fight World War II, none of us would have been there. There would have been no American Academy in Berlin, of course, with its prominently hung portrait of the villa’s original Jewish owners, now the Academy’s patrons; indeed, there would have been no Jews in Berlin, no Americans in Berlin, and no critics and writers in Berlin, save those approved by the Third Reich. Instead, a happy Nazi family would have been looking out over the lake, enjoying the same view.

Yet the dull truth is that we arrived at the topic of Nicholson Baker not because we were talking about the war, but because we were talking about the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the “mainstream media” is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper. And the even duller truth is that Human Smoke belongs to this cult, and not to the more exotic outer reaches of the historiography of World War II.

Now, I have great respect for Applebaum’s knowledge of history and her writing of it. In fact, I think I have blogged more excerpts from her fascinating and well-done Gulag: A History than from any other book I’ve read. Nor do I have any sympathy for Baker, nor any desire to inhale the smoke he’s blowing in the book under review. I’m also getting more sour on the blogosphere these days, as it becomes less and less distinguishable from 24-hour journalism’s endless gotcha coverage and partisan shouting matches. And I’m also pretty routinely dismayed by the sloppy amateurishness of much of the stuff I find in Wikipedia (to which I’m contributing more and more these days, but only on subjects I know well).

But, geez, Anne, give us a break. Baker’s book was published by Simon and Schuster, not Gawker Media. Book publishers supposedly employ rigorous editors that blog media so often lack. Your review appeared in The New Republic, a magazine whose writers include fabulists and whose fact-checkers have repeatedly fallen down on the job. Most major media outlets have suffered similar embarrassments in recent years. Do you seriously believe that the reliability and expertise of the world’s legions of newspaper reporters are any more impressive than those of Wikipedia’s legions of contributors? News reports may claim to be the first draft of history, but they are usually the umpteenth draft of tired conventional wisdom. Finally, did the writing of purblind, partisan, and provincial-minded history only begin with blogging? Surely the writing of such history began with the advent of writing, the beginning of history.

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April Hiatus

Busy with travel, family, and other things.

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A Tale of Two Blogs

I started the Far Outliers blog four years ago this month, mostly as an experiment to see how easy it would be to create my own blog after reading so many others. Blogger.com made it fairly easy to start, despite periodic episodes of chaos during upgrades. During the last major upgrade, I moved my blog to the new servers, but did not upgrade the layout. I plan to do that this month, unless I hear too many horror stories from readers who regret doing the same thing.

In April this year, after helping someone else start a new blog on WordPress.com, I created a WP version of Far Outliers and imported all my old posts from Blogger.com. It was very easy, and I much prefer the design of my WP blog, especially the typography and the banner image that I can replace at will. I cannot really compare how easy it is to tweak the designs of my two blogs until I upgrade to Blogger’s widget-driven layout mode in place of my old syntax-driven template.

I now have over 1,600 blogposts on each blog, over 400 per year. Sitemeter reports over 200,000 visits and 300,000 pageviews at my blogspot site. I am quite satisfied with being a Crawly Amphibian in the TTLB Ecosystem, and generally keeping some distance (often centuries in time) from all the swirling controversies of every new battle in the blogosphere. I prefer to post backgrounders that add historical or extraregional perspectives on current issues and events. Several online reference works link to some of my posts on Blogger, making me reluctant to abandon the older blog.

Most of my blogspot traffic arrives via images.google.com, because I often link out to maps and images to aid readers (and myself) when delving into unfamiliar territory. My top entry page on blogger is the archive page for August 2007, primarily because the main blogpost on 25 August contains a link to a CIA political map of Southeast Asia available on a server in Middlebury, VT. The same entry, Outburst of Piracy in Southeast Asia, 1754-1838, is also the top post on my WP blog, for the same reason. Only this week has images.google.com begun directing traffic to the WP version, overwhelming the referrals from WP’s tag aggregator system.

For a long time, my top post on Blogger was The German Pacific “Gutpela Taim Bipo”—not because of much interest in Germany’s former colonies in the Pacific, but simply because the post had discussed floggings and executions, and had linked out to an image at a German academic site to illustrate Field Punishment No. 1 (the pillory, which replaced flogging). The German site later removed the image and I removed the link, thereby considerably reducing traffic to that post. Judging from the search terms that brought people there, a lot of people seem to be interested in flogging, public execution, the pillory, and the like, many if not most of them coming from European IP addresses, it seemed. (By the way, the Australians, not the Germans, were responsible for dramatic increases in public corporal punishments during the 1920s and 1930s in their newly acquired colony of New Guinea.)

WP’s built-in blog stats keyed to individual blogposts rather than to monthly archives have yielded some surprising results, showing me that my posts about religion often attract as much interest as my posts on language. WP’s tag aggregator gurus have also been kind enough to feature several of my recent posts on religion (and even war!), perhaps because I have remained relatively nonpartisan on those topics. For the record, I am a secularist who believes religion often serves a vital purpose, and also a Vietnam-era draftee who believes warfare is sometimes necessary. In short, I am neither a religion-bashing secularist nor a military-bashing pacifist.

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Burma: Engagement Has Failed, Isolation Has Failed

I’ve posted a good bit about Burma since starting to blog almost four years ago, but I’ve been hesitant to post much now because I feel we are all little more than drive-by rubberneckers, turning our heads toward Burma just long enough to catch a glimpse of yet another passing segment in the endless video of disaster news that no one can really do much about—apart from finding a way to pin the blame on one’s favorite ideological demons, of course. Every disaster is good for blind partisans.

But a current article in Foreign Affairs seems to offer a useful retrospective on two opposing diplomatic dead-ends. Both engagement by its neighbors and isolation by more distant but powerful forces seem to have failed.

U.S. policy toward Burma is stuck. Since September 1988, the country has been run by a corrupt and repressive military junta (which renamed the country Myanmar). Soon after taking power, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the junta was then called, placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party the National League for Democracy, under house arrest. In 1990, it allowed national elections but then ignored the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory and clung to power. Then, in the mid-1990s, amid a cresting wave of post-Cold War democratization and in response to international pressure, the SLORC released Suu Kyi. At the time, there was a sense within the country and abroad that change in Burma might be possible.

But this proved to be a false promise, and the international community could not agree on what to do next. Many Western governments, legislatures, and human rights organizations advocated applying pressure through diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions. Burma’s neighbors, on the other hand, adopted a form of constructive engagement in the hope of enticing the SLORC to reform. The result was an uncoordinated array of often contradictory approaches. The United States limited its diplomatic contact with the SLORC and eventually imposed mandatory trade and investment restrictions on the regime. Europe became a vocal advocate for political reform. But most Asian states moved to expand trade, aid, and diplomatic engagement with the junta, most notably by granting Burma full membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.

A decade later, the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle….

If ASEAN and Japan are critical components of any international approach to Burma, China and India could be the greatest obstacles to efforts to induce reform in the country. China has many interests in Burma. Over the past 15 years, it has developed deep political and economic relations with Burma, largely through billions of dollars in trade and investment and more than a billion dollars’ worth of weapons sales. It enjoys important military benefits, including access to ports and listening posts, which allow its armed forces to monitor naval and other military activities around the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. To feed its insatiable appetite for energy, it also seeks preferential deals for access to Burma’s oil and gas reserves….

It will also be a challenge getting India on board. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trumpeting of democratic values, India has actually become more reticent when it comes to Burma in recent years. This is particularly regrettable considering that Congress was one of the Burmese democratic opposition’s strongest supporters during much of the 1990s and that Suu Kyi continues to cite Mohandas Gandhi as a model for nonviolent resistance. The change occurred during the past decade, after New Delhi detected that China’s political and military influence in Burma was filling the void left by the international community’s deliberate isolation of the junta. Like China, India is hungry for natural gas and other resources and is eager to build a road network through Burma that would expand its trade with ASEAN. As a result, it has attempted to match China step for step as an economic and military partner of the SPDC, providing tanks, light artillery, reconnaissance and patrol aircraft, and small arms; India is now Burma’s fourth-largest trading partner. Singh’s government has also fallen for the junta’s blackmail over cross-border drug and arms trafficking and has preferred to give it military and economic assistance rather than let Burma become a safe haven for insurgents active in India’s troubled northeastern region….

Given the differing perspectives and interests of these nations, a new multilateral initiative on Burma cannot be based on a single, uniform approach. Sanctions policies will need to coexist with various forms of engagement, and it will be necessary to coordinate all of these measures toward the common end of encouraging reform, reconciliation, and ultimately the return of democracy. To succeed, the region’s major players will need to work together.

Fat chance of that happening, I’m afraid.

As a gesture of mourning for the lives being sacrificed to ‘keep the peace’, I’ll retain one header image for the rest of the week. It’s a stupa-style memorial dedicated to Japanese war dead in Burma, which I came across in the massive Okunoin cemetery at Kōya-san, one of Japanese Buddhism’s holiest sites.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Blogging and Flogging

In April, as an experiment, I started a new blog on WordPress.com and imported all my Blogger posts into it. It was surprisingly easy (the same ease of entry got me started on Blogger), and I much prefer WordPress.com to Blogger.com, but I hesitate to abandon my old Blogger archives, which are linked from Wikipedia, Omniglot, Topix.net, and other reference sites, and Google seems to do an especially thorough job of indexing posts on blogspot.com.

One of things that WordPress.com’s post-oriented blog stats has confirmed for me is the reason for my all-time hit leader among my blogposts on both blogs: The German Pacific “Gutpela Taim Bipo”! It’s not because very many people are fascinated by the German colonies in the Pacific. Hardly anyone is interested in anything except the following sentence in the post.

This was in marked contrast to the later Australian administration, under whom flogging, the pillory (“Field Punishment No. 1”), and public executions became not only far more common, but far more arbitrarily applied.

I’ve italicized the depressingly popular search terms that bring so many creeps to that blogpost, a disproportionate number of whom seem to come from European IP domains. I had originally linked to two illustrative images for two of those terms on the Universität Bayreuth website, and most of my Blogger hits seemed to come via images.google.com. (The university later removed the images, for understandable reasons, and I have now removed the links.) My links out to images, especially maps, seem to bring me a good chunk of my traffic via images.google.com.

Over the past month or so, I have gone back through all my 1500+ blogposts on WordPress.com and assigned each to at least one category. I still haven’t tagged all of the same posts on Blogger, because I already had passed 750 or so blogposts by the time the tag feature became available.

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Road Trip Hiatus until June

The Far Outliers will be on the road for the rest of the month. The overland portion will start in Minnesota, then head south through Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, then east through Alabama and Georgia, then north through South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York to Connecticut for our daughter’s graduation over Memorial Day weekend. Then we’ll head back west through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

We’ll see family in Minnesota, Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, and Wisconsin; old friends in Georgia, Ohio, and Illinois; and do some sightseeing in the Deep South, especially Natchez and Savannah. Expect little or no blogging, but a lot of new photos on my Flickr account after we return. Among the books I plan to read on the trip are the novel East Wind, Rain, by Caroline Paul (Harper, 2006) and Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000).

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Three Years and 1377 Blogposts

I started blogging on a Saturday exactly three years and 1377 blogposts ago. I need to concentrate on a few other things over the next few weeks so posting will be a little lighter than usual.

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