Thursday, April 20, 2006

Interwebs and Bullies

The way that Juan Cole is treated by some people is indicative of something very worrying about the way foreign policy debate (particularly with regard to the Middle East) is now pursued by those in power and their supporters. For some people, the mere mention of his name is enough; if Cole said it, it's obviously wrong and can be ridiculed as the worst kind of moonbattery. I've seen these disparaging put-downs on comment threads any number of times when someone has been foolish enough to quote the Professor.

Professor Cole, you see, has had the temerity to question the wisdom of the ruling cabal and, what's worse, he has done so while claiming to actually know what he's talking about. Worse still, people are paying attention. In the world of "no alternatives but us" this has meant that Professor Cole has been subjected to a cynical smear campaign by some of those who's policies he dares question.* It is not, in this brave new democratic world, acceptable to question the policies of our ruling masters. Those who do can expect only retribution, mockery and isolation.

It says a great deal about the strength of an argument when it's followers feel they can an only defend it by resorting to such measures. It's certainly a long way from the democratic ideals on which our societies are said to be based. It is interesting that these people who try so hard to marginalise and ridicule Cole for having the audacity to exercise his essential democratic right to free speech are the very same people who profess to be driven by a burning desire to protect and promote that same right. It's another of the classic ironies of the early 21st Century.

In this interconnected world, however, there is a great deal of hope that these sleazy tactics will ultimately fail. For one thing, you can Juan Cole's blog for yourself every day. In times past, it was relatively easy to keep "unpopular" or "undesirable" opinions out of the public eye. Patronage affects the media just as it does other walks of life and the government could exert considerable influence over the relatively small number of mainstream media outlets which might be tempted to stray too far from the party line. Blogging, and other forms of internet communication, have made it much easier for people to get their opinions "out there".

These new forms of communication do not, of course, have the influence of a national TV news programme or a national daily newspaper. There is some evidence to suggest that blogs do, however, exert some influence on that wider media and on society as a whole. This would seem most likely to apply to high profile blogs such as Professor Cole's (rather than to random obscure bloggers like myself). This, it seems to me, is a splendidly democratic way to distribute ideas. Free marketeer should, and indeed I think do, love it too. Low barriers to entry into a competitive meritocratic market. Outstanding.

There are problems of course. In free market terms, there is essentially an oversupply which makes anything resembling perfect information an impossibility. In other words, there are so many blogs out there that it is impossible to actually judge whether you're "buying" the best that's on offer. And barriers to entry are actually higher than they might first appear in that the sheer number of blogs makes it difficult to attract "customers" to a new start. Word of mouth can help here.

And that's where we go back to Professor Cole. The new world of interweb communication is also available to the bullies of the ruling cabal. What's more, they will often be able to fund and market their interweb missives more generously than would an average blogger. The danger is that these officially unofficial communications will become disproportionately influencial and this'll negate some of the democratic benefits which internet communication can provide.

In the case of Professor Cole, the bullying tactics are undoubtedly intended to have two related effects. The first goal is that they might discourage him from expressing unwelcome opinions. In this, they're having no luck at all. The second is an attempt to discourage some of the word of mouth traffic which the Professor might otherwise get.

That's why, today, I'm linking to Juan Cole and advising you to read his stuff if you don't already.** I can't say I agree with every single word the Professor writes but I can say that he knows a great deal more about a great many things than I do and that his opinions are worthwhile and valuable. And I can also say that I don't like bullies but I do very much admire people who refuse to be bullied.

* Just to be clear, I'm not saying that every criticism of the Professor comes directly from the powers that be. There's not someone at Republian Party HQ who's job it is to leave disparaging comments using various aliases. They just produce and release a meme which then establishes a life of its own. It seems to me that we really need a meme in the other direction to counteract it properly.

**Not that I'm under an illusion that this'll deluge Informed Comment with new readers mind. There's a principle at stake here too.

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