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Antony Loewenstein Speaks At Berkman

Anthony Loewenstein, author of the recent book The Blogging Revolution, stopped by for a luncheon/lecture here at the Berkman Center yesterday. Loewenstein, a journalist in background, prepared for the book by traveling to some of the world’s more repressive regimes and interviewing bloggers about how the internet and blogging in particular is changing the world they live in. The full transcript of his remarks can be found here. I wanted to offer a few of the points I found to be particularly interesting.

1. Loewenstein repeatedly pointed to a sort of blind spot in Western journalism that is actually obscuring our view of the non-Western world. This includes the fact that most Western coverage is reported by Western correspondents who sometimes (as he himself confessed during the Q&A; he only spent a month there and mostly spoke to American bloggers living in Syria) do not remain long in a country or learn the requisite local languages to penetrate deeply into more indigenous stories and perspectives.

In particular, the Western “lens” (and here Loewenstein singled out the New York Times) tends to self-filter news into the categories and pre-suppositions that fit the exigencies of American foreign policy. On this point, one had the feeling that Loewenstein was mostly right (e.g. the newspeak “War on Terror”), though he seemed to have an almost conspiratorial conviction about Washington’s influence. He was careful to stress that the Manichean division of “good” versus “bad” nations (for example, “Israeli” vs “Arab”) has been more a hallmark of Bush-era policy.

The point of all of this is that bloggers fill in our picture of the developing and Islamic world where newspapers and major media fail, in large part because the bulk of Western stories obsessively follow themes like “terrorism” and “Palestine/Israel” which tend to reduce and oversimplify our view of the entire region. Instead of puffing our ghosts and specters, the West should be tuning in to hear the real story from the ground, as provided by citizen journalists and just average people writing blogs.

2. This does not mean, however, that bloggers are the harbingers of upcoming democratic revolutions in the Middle East or China. Although the internet widens the scope of free expression (or at least makes it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to contain dissent), Loewenstein often encountered a kind of weariness for calls to arms and revolution. One Iranian blogger, in particular, told Loewenstein that he felt strongly about reform, but that it needed to come about in a gradual, almost Burkean, sort of way.

Loewenstein connected this to a need for the West to overcome its epistemological shortcomings and embrace moderate factions, particularly elements of political Islam like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Instead, in the relentless fight against a spooky AlQaeda menace and pragmatic energy policy, Washington props up pretty bad rulers. If they read native blogs, they would have a better idea of who these factions are. The would hear the voices of moderate factions who are as uneasy with American or European meddling as they are with the regular torture, repression and abuse which characterizes their own regime. This includes Muslim women against female circumcision or restrictive social policies, pro-reform Islamists and change-eager Cubans.

3. Having said all that, most blogging in the developing world is not political in scope. Not everyone running a blog (and these are generally middle class folks to begin with) is a dissident or human rights activist. Much of it centers on dating or music, fashion and everyday life. Loewenstein rightly insists, however, that this is itself a kind of free expression and step toward an open society worth paying attention to.

I think there is a kind of cynical rebuttal to his argument which says that the banality of everday blogs in repressive regimes is highly conditioned by the fear of speaking out on anything political. Of course, this dynamic must differ from regime to regime. In Iran, where even Western music and fashion is banned by the morality police, the struggle to do banal and everday things is already a political struggle; in Thailand, where only the borders of internet are really policed (lese majeste and jihadist websites), it’s easier to maintain an apolitical kind of free expression.

4. Loewenstein had harsh words for internet companies which collude in censorship. He pointed, as we have before as well, to the geo-locational filtering YouTube uses to adapt content to local countries. He did concede that perhaps blocking four videos instead of four thousand is better, but I almost wanted him to stick to his guns and insist that countries take YouTube all or nothing. Not because I think this will loosen the knots of censorship, but because public outcry and dissent could be wide enough to choke back the state’s ever encroaching authority and control over democratic discourse.

All in all, a great talk and we thank Antony for stopping by!

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