Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Thoughts from the Unreal World

Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Speech

Check out the free lottery at the end of the article!

Today's lunchtime reading, over one of those new Starbucks lemon muffins, was an article by George Packer on blogs in the current issue of Mother Jones. Ever since the Iraq war controversy started, I've tried to broaden by outlook by reading more material written by all those idiots who don't share my beliefs which I would probably disagree with.

If I was living in Ireland, this would probably not be an issue; in fact, during my brief visit last month, reading about the criticism of Mary Robinson in the Old Grey Lady of D'Olier Street left me feeling like a character in a Philip K Dick novel, unsure of whether to trust my perceptions. Being in China left me with the same sensation of being unmoored from objective reality, as reported through the media.

Nevertheless, I've come to quite appreciate the New Statesman and Mother Jones in particular. The NS has had some excellent opinion pieces by Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch, which mesh nicely with my own strongly anti-anti-war attitude. I'll post later on a review last week by Peregrine Worsthorne.

MoJo has the great distinction in my eyes at least, of being the magazine which fired Michael Moore for bad journalism. I loved their recent piece, in the best shock-horror tone on Americans for Tax Reform leader Grover Norquist, that devil in human form who wants to cut taxes and even (gasp!) shrink the government.

Although I'm being an irony-tourist in the journals of the silly left, I admire their writing and analysis, which is often as good as, for example the Weekly Standard.

Anyway, back to George Packer.

I can fully identify with how addictive he finds reading blogs; I too can happily spend hours, or sometimes entire weekends, reading them and following the links that interest me through cyberspace. I began with Andrew Sullivan in March 2001, shortly after he began his blog and over time my obsession has grown. Quite a number of blogs have been so addictive that I have gone through their entire archives - including Blog Irish, Internet Commentator, A Better Tomorrow, and the Daily Ablution recently (all these are now linked in the header of the page except ABT).

It's true blogs are so far largely a medium for comment and analysis. Naturally, when so much media reporting and academic information is online for browsing, embedding links for rapid responses is the most convenient way to go. How many of us could write dozens of letters to the newspapers, with such transparent citations as is possible in a blog? To my mind, the argument is far richer this way. Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist , while an interesting book, could be much better as a collection of webpages allowing one to link supporting or dissenting analysis and new data; as it is, I have to read it with three bookmarks, one in the main text, another in the footnotes and a third in the bibliography. Here, the medium really is the message, allowing us not just to shout at the TV tube, but to construct mentally, and if motivated enough in writing on a blog, a well-sourced counter-argument. Certainly, a lot of what I have written here has been a transcription and refinement of my own inner dialogue.

Blogs can and do go beyond mere interpretation; often someone's informed opinion (as in the case of Paul Krugman, although his webpage is not quite a blog) or on-the-ground experience (such as Salaam Pax), and ability to gather and interpret information is such that a new and better media experience is created. One of my favourite examples is NKZone (which incidentally today is carrying news of DUP boy-wonder Jeffery Donaldson's attendance at an upcoming meeting on Seoul on the topic of NK), which aggregates information from the domestic and foreign media, NGOs and academia on the Hermit Kingdom. Rebecca MacKinnon is a true micropundit...

An alternative channel is desperately needed in many subjects, particularly in politics, where the media tends to obsess in solipistic obsession with itself and its thoughts. In Ireland, where liberalism means the Sunday Independent and its deep-thinkers, I can see how this medium is going to be to Irish society what talk-radio was to America in the nineties - the place where popular political opinions surpressed by the mainstream media get a hearing.

Even for those bloggers I often strongly identify with, like Andrew Sullivan, I think the medium of blogging makes weighing rhetoric much easier. For example, it's quite obvious from what he writes (such as a boyish triumph when the head of the PFLP was decapitated by a helicopter's missile) that he has no real knowledge of Israel and its wars beyond what he reads in the papers, and his efforts on that topic often fall flat. Where he brings his experience and passion to bear, on US politics, Anglo-American culture and especially on homosexuality, his writing is sublime in the empathy and insight it creates.

Norman Rockwell's painting Freedom of Speech above, with its rough, ordinary, but Lincoln-like figure at a public meeting can bring me near to tears with its celebration of freedom of speech and the realisation that it's the common man who needs it most, not the intellectual who might champion it most vocally. Electronic and print media have to adapt to the fact that they have a new army of skilled amateur journalists scrutinising them - truly a change for the better and a real enhancement of freedom of speech.

Finally, Packer contends that "So far this year, bloggers have been remarkably unadept at predicting events...". In the spirit of Popper, I would like to make the following prediction: within the next 12 months (i.e. by the end of May 2005) the Irish Times will suffer a scandal over conflicts of interest, falsified information or plagarism.

So in the spirit of Julian Simon and adapting the methods of FM radio stations, I make this offer: Anybody who wants to can email me at the adress in the header to take on the bet: If I loose, I send that lucky person a copy of my favourite book, The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. If I win, I get a paperback book from you of my choice of equal value. Deal?