Blogs and Blogging
For this final session of the Great Issues Forum Seminar, we have decided to examine the form that this seminar has taken, the blog. To do this we have invited two very different bloggers, As'ad AbuKhalil, a professor at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of the blog The Angry Arab, and Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at Tufts University and a blogger for Foreign Policy. Both writers share common interests – the Middle East, American politics, the relationship between politics and the media – but have different sensibilities. The idea is for each of them to read each other’s blog and to respond -- not just its substantive claims but also its style and spirit. Both of their blogs are below. Professor AbuKhalil's entry is first.
Blogging about Blogging
The Graduate Center at CUNY invited me to post a blog dealing with blogging on foreign policy. So I will blog about blogging. I was asked to react to this blog by Daniel Drezner. I don’t read many blogs (I only read a few dealing with the Middle East) and I don’t know much about blogs or blogging as a profession or as a hobby although I personally blog. Why do I not read other blogs? It is not like writing: you write and then you read what other people write and on so on. Blogging is a difference exercise: it is more personal and more narcissistic: much more narcissistic for sure. It is more personal unless you use the blog for reasons related to career promotion. I followed Drezner’s blog for a few days and it made me wonder: am I that narcissistic and that self-referential? I may very well but and blogging is a personal encounter, first and foremost. That is an inevitable consequence of blogging. In fact, I resisted the blog for that same reason. After Sep. 11, I started to send out comments and links to a list of 160 people—by the end of it hovered around that number. A student of mine then kept urging me to turn the effort into a blog. I told him that I would not, that I could not, and that I can’t imagine having an asadabukhalil.com website. I used to refer (ironically, although Americans—according to the British—have no appetite for irony) to the email service list as the Angry Arab News Service. One day, the student (Neal), came to my office and asked to take over my computer for a minute. He then showed me a site that he started and it was the Angry Arab News Service blog. He did not know that green is my favorite color, but I immediately liked it (but I had to change the color and design a few changes). At first, I did not even how to post links: I used to send to Neal, and he would then post them. Look at me now: I can blog and I can even operate a ten-speed blender without adult supervision. But the blog by Drezner made me think about the art or task of blogging. The question is: why does one blog, and for whom does one blog? Looking at Drezner, it is clear that he is writing for his students and for his colleagues—with special emphasis on the latter. He also seems to be writing for journalists interested in his specialty. One always writes—or one should—within his/her own specialty. I don’t write for my students (those who are in my classes, I mean) although I write for students in general. I view my role in the classroom non-politically, so I make an effort (as difficult as it is) to keep my political views outside of the classroom. I believe in that, and the running joke among my students is that I don’t acknowledge the existence of my blog, although my students—or many of them—wind up finding it anyway although I don’t bring it up in class. But I write for those who are interested in the Middle East: and for those who are frustrated by the coverage (journalistic and academic) of the Middle East in the West (or in the East as I often write critically of Arab media). I write for myself too: the self-service nature of the blog can’t be denied. One is writing in a diary of sorts and is sharing that with his/her readers. Now there is the difference between Drezner and me: some people write within a narrow circle of colleagues to solidify networks or connections and expand them within the academic or journalistic world. I don’t have that aim or ambition: far from that. I write primarily for my political friend and enemies, chiefly. I write for myself: in a form of political diary and as a form of therapeutic self-reflection and reflection. I also write for students of Middle Eastern studies worldwide: I do care about students and I feel that engaging them in the classroom is different from engaging them outside of the classroom especially if you agree with John Hope Franklin—and I do—that advocacy should be reserved to outside of the classroom. I write to express some of the frustration and anger against what I read: in journalism and in scholarship. I also write against the monopolies of thought that prevail in Arab media and publishing. But in looking at Drezner’s blog, I am reminded that blogs are varied because the personalities of people are varied. And that can be good or bad: depending on one’s tastes and preferences and one is drawn to blogs that not only appeal to (or offend) one’s sensibilities, but also to styles of expression and personal traits that one is either amused by or is annoyed by. Drezner reminded me of the (bad) influence of Thomas Friedman: how people are now trying desperately to reduce foreign policy issues to cute headlines and uncute phrases and expressions. Simplification and generalizations are now welcome, and nuanced analysis is not in fashion. And mainstream blogging is like mainstream media opinions: it has to be situated within the confines of narrow parameters of acceptable debate, i.e., within the bounds of the Republican and Democratic divide. And a recent study of punditry indicated that most famous pundits are the most wrong pundits (at least as far as predictions): perhaps because they are the least likely to offer nuanced and thoughtful opinions would not entertained an audience that is accustomed to Republican-versus-Democratic classification of thought. Similarly, opinions that fall outside of the narrow confines of acceptable (tenure and promotion rewarding) expression of opinions, will be seen as dangerous. So the style and substance needs (for those who are keen on not falling outside of the acceptable bounds of thought) to adhere to the standard forms and even humor. One can disagree but politely and respectfully. Strong language and sophomoric humor is only reserved to America’s enemies: Chavez, Ahmadinajad, and the rest. Bush may be criticized but with utmost respect and only from the standpoint of what is good for America and for Americans, and most importantly for the troops of the US. Blogging that does not adhere to those niceties and to those standards of expression falls outside the norms and enters into a separate category altogether. That does not mean that blogging will not continue to grow among academics: it will but only to plug one’s own work and to salute one’s own colleagues (and department chairs) and to underline the patriotism of the blogger himself/herself.
Three Different Ways of Looking at an Angry Arab
I have been reading blogs for a decade, and I've been studying and writing about them for half a decade. To paraphrase Donald Wolfit, defining a blog is easy; evaluating its content is not.
There are a number of different frames through which one can evaluate political or policy blogs. Here are three lenses through which one can think about blogs, and what they reveal when focused on Angry Arab.
1) Blogs as bridgebuilders or reinforcers. Since the blogosphere was young, a debate has persisted over the role that blogs served in political discourse. Some commentators posited that because bloggers systematically link to and comment on each other, greater interaction and exchange of ideas was inevitable. Other commentators argued that blogs represented a acceleration of "cyberbalkanization" or "cocooning" - like-minded bloggers interacting only with their ideological ilk.
This threatens to create a reinforcing cycle of ideological soulmates providing AbuKhalil with reports that merely reinforce his own beliefs. However, AbuKhalil also blogs plenty about articles in which he disagrees - see this post in which he asserts that, "the New York Times has proven that it is more than ever an arm of the Israeli terrorist propaganda." Clearly, AbuKhalil does not blog only about stories with which he agrees. On the other hand, his engagement with contradictory points of view takes place at the strawman level of discourse.
2) Blogs as linkers/blogs as thinkers. Some blogs function as portal sites, providing little original content but plenty of hyperlinks to news reports, essays, and online analysis elsewhere. Other blogs provide fewer posts and links, but more in-depth analysis based on their background, training and expertise. Crudely put, there are linkers and there are thinkers. Unless it is their day job, a blogger rarely does both very well.
Angry Arab, at this point, is mostly a linking blog, and kudos to AbuKhalil for being so prolific. In one 40-minute sequence early on a Saturday morning, AbuKhalil put up an astonishing thirteen blog posts. As a fellow academic blogger, I bow in the face of superior productivity.
At least I think it's mostly a linking blog - the format make this difficult to detect at times. Actually, to be blunt, aesthetics of Angry Arab leave a lot to be desired. Every post consists of a single paragraph, even in posts crying out for bullet points. It occasionally requires multiple read-throughs to determine when AbuKhalil is quoting someone else and when he is writing in his own voice. The failure to blockquote, or break long monologues into paragraphs, is self-defeating. Style is not substance, but style can make substance a lot easier to digest. Breaking from a pattern of unindented prose might help AbuKhalil avoid sounding like the protagonist in a vigilante superhero film.
As for AbuKhalil's thinking, it was a mixed bag. As someone well-versed in Lebanese politics, he provides some useful historical context in this post. In critiquing an Economist story on Israeli entrepreneurship, however, he argues:
[The article] forgot to add the factor of foreign aid flowing into Israel since its creation. I mean, if Somalia were to receive more than $100 billion from the US government since 1967, the country would have really prospered.
Well, not so much, no. As a political scientist, AbuKhalil knows that, at best, there is a very weak correlation between foreign aid flows and national prosperity. As a Middle East expert, AbuKhalil knows that "Egypt has received over $50 billion in US largesse since 1975," and yet "prospered" is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about that country.
3) Blogs as public intellectuals/blogs as critics. As I've written elsewhere:
For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life - including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower.
Based on his public calendar, AbuKhalil is a successful public intellectual, and his blog is blessedly jargon-free. Furthermore, AbuKhalil clearly fits the profile of an academic best-suited to maximize the utility of blogging: "faculty comfortably ensconced at non-elite institutions."
An equally useful purpose of academic blogs is to "engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals," and Angry Arab does this with a vengeance. In one recent post he takes an intellectual machete to Christopher Hitchens, defining him as, "the man who has not had one insight in foreign policy." This was the best Angry Arab post I read - not because I share this take of Hitchens, but because AbuKhalil backed up his assertions with argumentation and fact.
Other critiques of the mainstream media are, to be generous, less persuasive. He blasts New York Times reporters for putting Israeli government claims in their stories (for example, their claim that only a quarter of the dead Palestinians in the recent Gaza conflict were civilians). I understand why AbuKhalil might be upset with the assertion; I do not understand why he thinks the Times reporters are biased when they clearly attribute these claims to the Israeli government.
This was a difficult review to write. Perusing Angry Arab, I despaired that I would not see enough of AbuKhalil's own prose to render a plausible take. Then I read his account of a debate he had with the Israeli Consul General in San Francisco. And in that post I recognized AbuKhalil's concept of the political: there are only friends and enemies. In another post, he labels all local stringers for U.S. media outlets as, "internaliz[ing] the standards and biases of the White Man." I would label this as a radical denial of individual autonomy.
As someone who studies international relations, I am certainly familiar with AbuKhalil's Schmittian worldview. It is a politics defined by the negation of the other - persuasion, negotiation and recognition are absent. One wonders if it was always thus; Angry Arab in 2009 bears little resemblance to the blog described in this Los Angeles Times profile from four years ago.
Andrea Khalil said: