Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Blogical inclusion

The little spark that the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi ignited in December 2010 to torch himself in retaliation against corruption has engulfed the Arab region ever since. It brought the power back into people’s hands and the jitters were felt by the tyrants in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya and, to an extent, Bahrain (apart from Tunisia, of course). That begs the question: would all this have been possible without the World Wide Web? Yes it was the dispossessed and disenchanted who first raised their arms against the totalitarianism, but it’s a stretch to deny the blogs played their part by sowing the seeds of discontent.

You may call Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein a Nouriel Roubini of geopolitics for predicting an Arab Spring sort of thing after his visits to Damascus and Cairo, which are chronicled in a lively manner in this book. The book is a collection of dispatches from Loewenstein’s visits to Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China in 2007 to make sense of the nascent blogging craze in these repressive countries.

In Iran, Loewenstein brings the blogging scene to life in an almost Hunter S Thompson way. He visits nooks and crannies of Tehran to meet the handful of dissenters and brings to life the doings of the Ahmadinejad regime. It surely doesn’t augur well for the argumentative nature of any country if a blogger is detained for revealing that Iran’s presidential staff bought dogs from Germany for $150,000. Even though he touches upon the familiar issues, female and homosexual repression, Loewenstein has many original points to make. He’s spot on about the underground rave party scene, where demure women let their hair down. This is something that was portrayed last year in the gritty Iranian film Circumstance.

Equally illuminating is his reportage from Cairo, the solar plexus of the Arab Spring. Loewenstein chats with quite a few bloggers who raised their voices against the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak. Over the course of his trip, Loewenstein unearths blogs and websites that convey the Egyptians’ anguish in a more nuanced manner than the Western corporate media stationed there. Loewenstein’s trip to Syria is also as revealing and it confirms theories that the Arab Spring was in the making for a long time; all it needed was one small push, which Bouazizi provided.

The Blogging Revolution will be remembered for its prescience. A blogger tells Loewenstein in 2008, “If Mubarak lost power, the Islamists would take over and cause trouble.” This is exactly what looks like is happening in Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster. The book lays bare how misguided the perception of blogs being “echo chambers” and “information cocoons” is. This book is a perfect riposte to what Forbes once said blogs are all about: “the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective.” The Arab Spring showed how the Goliaths had to surrender before the Davids whose only “weapon” is the Internet.

What pulls back The Blogging Revolution a notch or two is that Loewenstein doesn’t make much headway in Cuba and Saudi Arabia. He’s either seen dithering or the authorities never let him near the actual troublemakers. He builds his reportage more or less on an assortment of articles from various sources. Although it’s laudable that he chose to brave the odds and travelled to Saudi Arabia and Cuba, the author appears as hapless as an upended turtle. In China, Loewenstein casts a wider net and tries to ask the Chinese if freedom of speech means anything to them as long as everything’s hunky dory with their personal lives.

Contrary to what Western media reports, Loewenstein finds out that most people prefer to be insouciant about the Tiananmen massacre. “People just want to get on with their lives. It’s in the past,” tells a source to Loewenstein. Here’s how Loewenstein summarises the attitude of Chinese bloggers, “On their wish lists, a Nintendo Wii comes far ahead of democracy. Free pirated films, television shows and music are their primary concern.” However, at the end of his dispatch he concludes that the Chinese politburo cannot anaesthetise the revolutionary streak among Chinese bloggers.

Another setback for The Blogging Revolution is the way Internet revolution zeitgeist has shifted from blogging to social networking and micro-blogging. The Arab Spring really exploded when people started tweeting about the atrocities being committed by Mubarak during his last-ditch efforts to cling on to power. During the disputed elections in Iran in 2009 when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to clamp down on protests and Twitter quelled his efforts, Economist carried a headline “Twitter: 1, CNN: 0”. These minor gripes aside, The Blogging Revolution is a nice throwback to whatever monstrosities the Arab Spring managed to undo and what blogging can achieve, with its heart in the right place, in the future.

Antony Loewenstein
Jaico Books
294 pages; Rs 350


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