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Daniel DreznerAs'as AbuKhalil'AS'AD ABUKHALIL
California State University

DANIEL DREZNER
Tufts University

 

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
AS'AD ABUKHALIL
California State University

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.

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Three Different Ways of Looking at an Angry Arab

DANIEL DREZNER
Tufts University

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.


Let's start with the easy part. A blog is as a web page with minimal to no external editing, providing on-line commentary, periodically updated and presented in reverse chronological order, with hyperlinks to other online sources. Blogs can function as personal diaries, technical advice columns, business gossip, expert commentary, or all of the above. A blogger is an individual who maintains a weblog. A post is an individual entry in a weblog. The "blogosphere" refers to the universe of blogs, which forms (in theory; see below) a social network.


Now for the hard part - how to evaluate Professor As'ad AbuKhalil's Angry Arab News Service?


This gets tricky. I had never read Angry Arab prior to the CUNY Center for the Humanities' request to read it this past month (the unfamiliarity was mutual). As a good social scientist, I'm not entirely convinced that a few weeks is a sufficiently large sample to evaluate a blog. Furthermore, based on what I've read, I doubt we agree on much of anything beyond the fact that the Economist is "the best magazine there is." He self-identifies, tongue in cheek, as an angry Arab; I self-identify as a happy Jew. Let's rumble!!

 

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.
AbuKhalil's blog offers evidence for both sides. Most of Angry Arab's blog posts consist of short excerpts from news stories about the perfidy of Israel, the Saudi royal family, Fatah, and other corrupt Arab governments (being a secular Arab of the left creates a lot of targets). Many of these posts emanate from his fan base; scanning his front page as I type this, more than 45% of his posts come from reader links.

 

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.


As someone who operates in the Anglo-American liberal tradition, I am pretty sure which side of the divide I would fall in AbuKhalil's world. I think that ideologically disparate individuals can exist in the same social network; I doubt, after reading his blog, whether AbuKhalil would agree. So be it. I fear, however, that AbuKhalil's ontological worldview renders blogs and blogging little more than a superfluous exercise in rabble-rousing.

 

 

Comments (12)add comment
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Hey said:

...
Nice to see Prof Abukhalil's friends and fans defending him here. Fun with mutual incomprehension as always - seems to be an unbreakable axiom, up there with the second law of thermodynamics.

The best part is the claim that he's not a "linker", missing the joke of a reference to Instapundit who has a very similar style to his links, where a very terse description contains layers of comment and irony. Instapundit's use of "heh" alone is a running joke, fairly devastating commentary, and a quick link. Ladies are protesting too much from their unfamiliarity with a reference and unwillingness to read links, ironic given the complaints about Drezner!

The attempt to defend an unreadable style is idiotic and fetishizes authenticity to a degree that is basically racist. Visual and prosaic clarity is not an affectation or a corruption of ideas. It is a means of increasing the information conveyed and retaining attention. Abandoning best practices is willful unilateral disarmament, but since I despise everything about Prof. Abukhalil I can only celebrate this. At least this counterproductive strategy doesn't glorify the slaughter of children and subjugation of women!
April 11, 2009

abraham said:

...
This has been an exercise in mental masturbation. In hindsight, I don't know why As'ad agreed to do this. It was a waste of his time and intellectual capacity.
April 09, 2009

Owen said:

...
I'd give them both a B+.

Abukhalil's lack of judgment in not hitting the 'enter' key, apparently in order to save himself a second or two of time, reduced his grade substantially. He's not that much of a superstar.

Drezner referenced Schmitt twice, which is totally lame.
April 08, 2009

David said:

...
I didn't say he was incomprehensible, just practically unreadable. I understand what the professor is saying. It just takes 5 times the effort that it should. I don't understand why an obviously highly intelligent thinker with a lot to say would write in a style unacceptable from an undergrad. When I TA'd chemistry, I would have made my students rewrite their lab reports if they were so hard to digest. It really is an insult to the reader - implying that the reader's time is much less valuable than the writer's time.

April 08, 2009

Andrea Khalil said:

...
As much as Drezner tries to convince us that reading academic and "disciplined" prose is the only appropirate way to write (on or off the blog), AbuKhalil is still a compelling and relevant writer. Drezner's points are at best academic and at worst beside the point. What is the point? Something to do with human expression, human existence, and global politics. Anyone who claims that AbuKhalil's writing is incomprehensible because it is not structured by bullet points peraps does not want to understand.
April 08, 2009

David said:

...
Professor AbuKhalil's writing style is practically unreadable. Is he actively trying to make it hard for readers?
April 08, 2009

Hani said:

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I'm not sure what does this "Drezner" wants from us here! I bet you "Drezner" is poorly informed about the Arab World (We need to stop saying Middle East here because it's mostly inhabited by Arabs) as most of the western nations, especially the people in the United States of North America.

From the news we hear, read, and watch in the US, we see how much lack of information there are and how biased it could be. I could say, personally, that the majority of the media in the US is showing the events from the Arab world, in favor of the racist, TERRORIST and illegitimate state of Israel point of view. For example, when any event takes place in the OCCUPIED land of Palestine, we realize that the main stream media will represent the Israelis as the victims vs. the civilian Palestinians, even though it's right there front of the viewers eyes and on TV, showing the Israeli TERRORIST army, (most of the weapons, if not all, are paid for from the Americans' taxpayers money, which could be used here in US to spend on the halting economy, schools and infrastructure) which armed to the teeth, is killing civilians by the hundreds in south Lebanon and throughout Palestine, but they still show the Israelis as the victims. The Israelis civilians were (even though they are considered soldiers and they could be called to duty) were cheering and pushing their Apartheid government to continue, and go further, with their slaughter against the Palestinians at the last massacre in Gaza. But that’s fine because they are Israelis and they could do whatever they want.

I mean, doesn't the viewer ask him/her self why an ARMY is killing defenseless civilians using tanks, helicopters, F-16's and battleships against civilians? The answer will be showed on behalf of the biased media (especially in the US) as that some Hamas militias men are launching home made rockets on the Israelis cities (which Israelis terrorists drove out and massacred its true inhabitants). And of course, the main stream media is taking advantage of the poorly informed western viewer to show the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as people who wake up from their beds in the morning just to launch rockets and kill people left and right just because this is their culture and that's their custom.

This "Drezner" is trying to demean As'ad's Blog and his way of thinking. He wants As’ad to join the bandwagon and to praise the racist, terrorist state of Israel and to report more of the “FAIR & BALANCED” news links so he could look more “Civilized” like NYT, Sky News, CNN and last but not least FOX news and it’s foxy news. Main stream media doesn’t drift one bit from admiring the racist, TERRORIST state of Israel. The whole world has to praise Israel and its “humanitarian” ways of killing Palestinians and Arabs at any time it wants, regardless of the so called “International laws” (even though the racist, TERROSRIST state didn’t and will NOT ever recognize international law because it has been always above the law).

I think As’ad’s Blog is well balanced because it shows news that most main stream media will not be interested in showing to its viewers. And what is the deal with people feeding As’ad with news links and info? Most of the Medias now are encouraging people to upload their stories or news through their media websites because it might be hit news on TV, radio or newspapers.

And yes…the Economist is the best magazine there is, I personally subscribe for it


April 07, 2009

Rob said:

...
Both blogs have in common that they're essentially exercises in narcissism, which may say something in general about the nature of blogging. Drezner's 'cutesiness' grates after awhile and his soft-left assumptions are fairly indicative of much of academia (at least in my experience); reading Drezner makes me want to shake him and get over his attempts at humor and tell us what he really thinks, to shake off his attempts to be so damn centrist.

With the Angry Arab, you pretty much get what is advertised; a fairly pissed-off, paranoid view of the world in general, and the Middle East, in particular, where Israel is enemy #1, and the US slightly far behind, with the usual utopianism that if Arabs were only left to themselves, they'd achieve something approaching the prosperity of Israel. This seems to be pretty mainstream among Mideast studies these days.

Both blogs illustrate the weakness of our current political discourse: Drezner seems to take his work and views half-seriously, and his bland, centrist opinions offer little that is new, other than an attempt to be broadminded. Angry Arab is a great example of cocooning, where paranoid 'Arabists' can vent and assure each other of their moral righteousness, and that the world is out to keep them down.

Interestingly, history shows that when the two views come into contact, the bland centrist accomodationism of Drezner, and the angry utopian paranoia of Angry Arab, it usually ends very badly for Drezner (perhaps not coincidentally who self-identifies as a Jew) and his ilk.
April 07, 2009

James said:

...
Although I do wish that As'ad would use paragraphs and format his writing better, I think we have to be aware of how dangerous the spread of the whole concept of online content best practices is.

The technique of bullet-points, formatted paragraphs and carefully laid out images were initially developed by online salespeople to maximise the impact of their online sales pitches.

Unfortunately the '10 Best...' approach to writing has gained a very strong hold on all online blogs and content sites. This is great for scanning, but it does tend to result in very superficial and light online articles and blog posts that don't necessarily do justice to the subjects they are presenting.

Sure, I don't mind you breaking things down to bullet-points when I'm reading about the new features of Apple's latest gizmo, but if I'm reading about something deeper, more educational or intellectual, I don't mind reading through numerous pages.

I for one find blog posts that don't adhere to the 'Top 10 Blog Post Best Practices' refreshing, at least allowing some of the authors personality to flow through his text-formatting style.

It'll be a sad day when everything we read online is reduced to 400 characters in bullet points!
April 07, 2009

abraham said:

...
I disagree entirely with Drezner's characterization of As'ad's blogging about articles with which he finds disagreement as "strawman". Again, this misconception stems from his limited perusal of As'ad's blog. But the articles As'ad criticizes are generally representative of the types of articles and stories that Western media proffers. For example, I can listen to any one hour of NPR and point out dozens of incidences where their coverage is lacking in journalistic standards. Now imagine if I were to do the same with CNN, MSNBC, and (god forbid) Fox. I'm sure if As'ad wanted he could spend 24 hours of his day criticizing the Western press for its disinfo, misinfo, biases, and outright lies. Instead, he spends only a few hours of his day and posts only a few representative links.

In other words, Drezner's claim of a "strawman" is, itself, a strawman.

As for Drezner's description of As'ad's blog as a "linker" more than a "thinker", that may well be true. But the value of his blog is to understand what I wrote above: that the Western press is so muddled and silly when it comes to reporting about the Middle East that the story IS the links. It is the crap journalism being passed on to American (and Western) readers as truth, when it is actually far from it, in some cases being outright government propaganda.

True, a more orthodox manner of formatting would be desirable, but a regular reader of the AANS doesn't have such reading comprehension problems. (Weren't we just talking about "strawmen"?)

With regards to the foreign aid given to Israel and Egypt: Egypt is a country of 70+ million, Israel has a population of 6 million (half of which are Arabs, which it neglects). Do the math.

Lastly, if you don't see the pro-Israeli bias in the pages of the NY Times, you either aren't reading it or you're a zionist.

And I'd rather take As'ad's "rabble rousing" any day over Drezner's sterile and stale coverage of world affairs that takes ten seconds to read and dismiss. The last few posts on his blog cover: the economic crisis, baseball, Hollywood, more economic stuff, and Britney Spears. And all in a manner that is superficial and basically useless in adding to the discourse of any of those subjects.
April 07, 2009
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