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Jun 08 2006

Why I love the internet-3: How blogs have changed the pundit game.

In the previous post, I discussed that the main role of columnists and pundits was to act as sheepdogs for us, herding us into pens that limit the range of opinions we are allowed to express and be taken ‘seriously.’ To be frank, I rarely read any of the newspaper columnists anymore. However, since they do appear regularly in the Plain Dealer, I occasionally glance at them while reading the paper. I can usually predict what they are going to say on any given issue and the first paragraph usually confirms my prediction. There is almost never any new information or data or perspective that I find enlightening, whether it be from the ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ columnists. But what those columns do give me one useful piece of information and that is to tell me is what the acceptable range of conventional wisdom is, what I am supposed to think.

Blogs have changed this world of news commentary and analysis. What the internet has revealed is two important things. The first is that there exists a whole host of knowledgeable and astute analysts of the news out there in cyberspace, people who care passionately about specific issues and are willing to put in the time and effort to really study things in detail. The second is that those of us whose views are outside the ‘acceptable’ range of opinions defined by the traditional newspaper columnists are not alone. In fact, there are quite a lot of us, and with internet we can discover one another’s existence, talk with each other, share information, and build alliances that transcend the conventional political labels.

Take for example, blogger Glenn Greenwald. Unknown a year ago, he burst on the scene with his sharp and critical analyses if the Bush administration’s electronic surveillance programs. I read his blog if I want to analysis by someone who understands constitutional law and who reads legislation and other documents carefully. He has become so influential so quickly that he has even been invited to give commentary on TV shows and his book How Would a Patriot Act: Defending American Values From a President Run Amok debuted last week at #11 on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, powered in part by the enthusiastic support he received from fellow bloggers.

Similarly, I read Juan Cole if I want to understand what is really going on in Iraq, how events are being viewed in the Arab media and backgrounds on the people involved. I read Justin Raimondo for generally astute and informed analysis on issues of war and peace, coupled with a sharp, no-nonsense writing style. Daily Kos and Atrios are good for alerting me to news items that I would otherwise miss. And there are always Joshus Micah Marshall and Kevin Drum for commentary that is similar to that of traditional columnists and pundits but is usually much better informed and perceptive. All these bloggers link to other bloggers on specific issues.

Almost none of these people have editors checking on them to make sure that what they write is accurate. I don’t know any of them personally either. So how do I know they are any good? How do I know they are reliable? The answer is their record. Blogs are mercilessly quick to point out when a fellow blogger makes an error and you quickly learn to distinguish between the people who are careful about what they write and the people who are merely glib. Of course, blogging is a fast-paced activity and errors are bound to creep in. But good bloggers respond well to having errors pointed out and you can easily tell the difference between those who make the occasional error and those who are trying to mislead readers in order to push an agenda. The deliberate misleaders, or those whose message is purely driven by ideology and undeterred by contradictory facts, end up with only partisan supporters (although there may be many of these).

While bloggers have no editors or other external quality control mechanisms like newspaper and TV and radio columnists do, they do have a far more powerful internal quality control mechanism. This is because bloggers know that the only thing they have to offer is the content they provide. People do not stumble across them while were looking for sports news, or department store sales, or comics. People have to actually seek them out. If bloggers do not provide good content, they are out of business.

I first realized the sheepherding or thought control role of newspaper columnists in the US soon after I first came here for graduate studies. In Sri Lanka as a student, I had read the sharp and incisive analyses of global politics of Noam Chomsky. Any person interested in politics there had heard of Chomsky, who is a distinguished professor of linguistics at MIT and became well known as a political analyst during the Vietnam war.

Chomsky is widely read everywhere in the world. He has been ranked in the top ten of the most cited scholars who have ever lived and recently was voted (by a landslide) the world’s top public intellectual in a poll conducted by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines. (See Robin Blackburn’s article for why he deserves this recognition.)

But when I came to the US for graduate studies in the late 1970s, I found him to be completely absent from the mainstream media here. In order to read his take on current events, I had to go to the library and read newspapers and magazines from other countries. What was even more surprising to me was that many people in the US had not even heard of Chomsky.

I now know why. Chomsky had made the cardinal ‘error’ of going outside the boundaries of acceptable thought. He had argued that the Vietnam war was an act of aggression by the US against that country, with the aim of making sure that that country’s economy was destroyed along with its socialist program of trying to provide education and housing and health to all its citizens. Such a good example, he argued, would be tempting for other developing nations to follow and thus dangerous to US business interests. This view went against the conventional view that Vietnam was a well-intentioned attempt to prevent the spread of Communism, taken on behalf of the Vietnamese people with their best interests in mind.

Chomsky has proceeded to elaborate on his analyses, arguing that the mainstream consensus idea of US foreign policy being benevolent in intent but undermined by incompetent execution or events beyond its control is a myth, and that its foreign policy is governed by ruthless self-interest on the part of a small group of US elites, carried out mercilessly, and dependent for its success on keeping the vast majority of American people in the dark about their true intentions. Controlling the range of debate and opinions in the mainstream media is an important tool towards achieving this goal. For stepping outside the mainstream consensus, and showing how that fraudulent mainstream consensus is created, he was banished from the op-ed pages of US newspapers and his articles could not be found in US mainstream magazines. (See the book Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Edward Herman (professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania) for a sharp analysis of how the media functions.)

Whether you agree with Chomsky or not, there is no denying the fact that he does his research and can back up his claims with historical facts, actual data, and clear, logical reasoning. And yet Chomsky cannot be found anywhere in the mainstream media in the US while fact-free ranters of the Ann Coulter variety seem to be all over the place. If that is not in itself a good reason to celebrate the death on establishment punditry, I don’t know what is. (See here for the kinds of things that Coulter says.)

Despite this shunning by the mainstream US media, Chomsky’s prolific output and seemingly unlimited energy enabled him to become one of the world’s most influential intellectuals. But in pre-internet days, he was a rare exception, like I. F. Stone. But with the internet, it will not be as hard for people with similar ideas to reach an audience. The internet no longer allows for the kind of thought policing that Chomsky experienced and that is why I think blogs will drive traditional media columnists out of business. They have become redundant.

I for one will not miss them.

POST SCRIPT: Man mauled by lioness

Here’s a disturbing story:

A man shouting that God would keep him safe was mauled to death by a lioness in Kiev zoo after he crept into the animal’s enclosure, a zoo official said on Monday.

“The man shouted ‘God will save me, if he exists’, lowered himself by a rope into the enclosure, took his shoes off and went up to the lions,” the official said.

“A lioness went straight for him, knocked him down and severed his carotid artery.”

This is the kind of tragedy that happens when people take the Bible and god too seriously. This unfortunate person probably had read the story in the Book of Daniel (chapter 6) where some enemies of the god-worshipping Daniel trick the king into throwing him overnight into the lion’s den. The Bible says that god closed the mouths of the lions to prevent harm coming to Daniel. The next morning, the king finds Daniel unharmed and, on discovering that he has been tricked into endangering him, is enraged at the people who had tried to use him to destroy Daniel:

At the king’s command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.

This story is one of the many Biblical stories that, although the ostensible point of it is to show god in a good light by demonstrating his power and responsiveness to those who worship him, actually creates even more problems for those who believe in a benevolent god. Why didn’t god (like he did with Daniel) protect the wives and children who, after all, were not accused of any wrongdoing (even assuming that you like the idea of a god who approves of wrongdoers being torn apart by lions)?

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